Self-care is an essential part of treating patients with lymphedema, with full-body exercise and complete decongestive therapy being the best ways to minimize symptoms and maintain quality of life.
Nearly 40% of breast cancer survivors suffer from lymphedema, which is a chronic condition that causes body limbs to swell from fluid buildup. It is a result of lymph node removal and radiation therapy. No cure exists, so patients with the condition must find ways to manage the symptoms throughout their lifetimes.
The research team reviewed published literature about lymphedema self-management to determine which practices were most effective in managing the condition. Full-body exercise, such as weight lifting and stretching, was found likely to be effective in minimizing lymphedema symptoms. Additionally, complete decongestive therapy, which is a comprehensive treatment that incorporates skin care, exercise, manual lymphatic drainage and bandaging of swollen limbs, also helps patients to effectively manage the condition.
“There’s a sense of empowerment—of autonomy—that comes from meeting the challenge of living with lymphedema,” said Jane Armer, PhD, RN, RAAN, nursing professor at University of Missouri and an author of the studies. “Some breast cancer survivors say that they’ve become a new person after cancer because they met a challenge, and they like the stronger person they’ve become. The challenge of lymphedema is similar. It’s something that is pervasive in every part of life. It takes problem solving and persistence to manage the condition without letting it interfere with their goals.”
Dr. Armer added, “Previous research suggests that, the earlier the interventions, the better the outcomes. If patients can learn how to successfully manage the condition early on, then they can continue those processes throughout their lives, and their outcomes will be better than those of [persons] who resist participating in self-care.”
These literature reviews were published in Nursing Research (2012;61(4):291-299) and PM&R (2012;4(8):580-601), which is the official scientific journal of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.