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Living with Lymphedema

(Photo credit: Jacob & Kiki Hantla)

We learn a lot from our customers. In this case, we learned from our Facebook fans.

We were approached by Lymphoedema – Let’s Talk a growing Facebook page used to share some holistic options on managing lymphedema. I have three family members who are breast cancer survivors, so I’ve had a vague knowledge of lymphedema, but confess I’ve never taken this challenging and often debilitating condition as seriously as I should. Not anymore! After doing some research, I’ve discovered the vein surgery I had in my leg last summer, could put me at risk for lymphedema. More than a million people suffer from lymphedema, but the numbers of those suffering from it are expected to increase greatly, probably due to rising cancer rates.

What is lymphedema?

According to Mayo Clinic:

“Lymphedema occurs when your lymph vessels are unable to adequately drain lymph fluid, usually from an arm or leg. Lymphedema can be either primary or secondary. This means it can occur on its own (primary lymphedema) or it can be caused by another disease or condition (secondary lymphedema). Secondary lymphedema is far more common than primary lymphedema.”

Causes of secondary lymphedema
Any condition or procedure that damages your lymph nodes or lymph vessels can cause lymphedema. Causes include:

  • Surgery. Lymphedema can develop if your lymph nodes and lymph vessels are removed or cut. For instance, surgery for breast cancer may include the removal of one or more lymph nodes in your armpit to look for evidence that cancer has spread. If your remaining lymph nodes and lymph vessels can’t compensate for those that have been removed, lymphedema may result in your arm.
  • Radiation treatment for cancer. Radiation can cause scarring and inflammation of your lymph nodes or lymph vessels, restricting flow of lymph fluid.
  • Cancer. If cancer cells block lymphatic vessels, lymphedema may result. For instance, a tumor growing near a lymph node or lymph vessel could become large enough to block the flow of the lymph fluid.
  • Infection. An infection of the lymph nodes can restrict the flow of lymph fluid and cause lymphedema. Parasites also can block lymph vessels. Infection-related lymphedema is most common in tropical and subtropical regions of the globe and is more likely to occur in developing countries.

Treatments for lymphedema

There is no cure for lymphedema, but there are options to help manage the symptoms.  Traditional treatments for lymphedema include the following:
  • compression bandages or garments
  • pneumatic pump therapy – this is a sleeve that’s worn on the affected limb that intermittently inflates and puts pressure on the limb, thus moving the lymphatic fluid.
  • therapeutic exercises and exercise in general is very helpful
  • weight-loss where applicable
  • manual lymph drainage (this is a special massage technique)
In addition to the treatments above, there are some dietary and supplemental therapies that may be helpful. Before making any changes in your healthcare routine, always consult with your doctor first.

Dietary changes

Paying attention to your diet is important. Avoid inflammatory foods like trans-fats, added sugars and processed foods. Even though lymph fluid contains a large amount of protein, maintaining a diet high in healthy protein is very important. Meats and eggs from pasture raised animals and wild fish are good place to start.

Rebounding – this is simply jumping on a mini-trampoline. Because your lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump, rebounding does the important job of moving your lymphatic fluid through your body.  There are  other  exercises for lymphedema, but you should consult your doctor first.

Flavonoids -Simply put, flavonoids are compounds from plants that have antioxidant properties. This means they are great for fighting cancer, reducing inflammation and supporting vein health. You’ll get flavonoids from eating fruits and veggies (refer to the Dirty Dozen guide for which produce is best) or you can take them in a supplement form.

Selenium has been reported to decrease the severity of chronic lymphedema resulting from radiation therapy and from acute lymphedema following surgery. Most people’s diets are deficient in selenium.

B-Vitamins are another that most of us lack (especially B-6 and B-12) and they can be helpful in managing lymphedema.  I checked a Q & A session from Terry Talks Nutrition and in addition to recommending an excercise physiologist and chiropractic care,  here’s what he recommended for a cancer survivor with lymphedema:  “The first supplement that comes to mind is pyridoxal-5-phosphate, or P-5-P (the bioactive form of vitamin B6) in a formula with magnesium glycinate. This combination is very good for edema. I’d start with 30 mg of P-5-P in a formula with 100 mg magnesium glycinate chelate, three times a day. I like the two together because the magnesium actually plays a synergistic role in activation of the bioactive form of vitamin B6. They work better together than separately. My next recommendation is to try a standardized horse chestnut extract. Many natural medicine companies sell horse chestnut extract to support leg edema and to help prevent varicose veins, or to reduce their appearance once they occur.”

Several other supplements that support the lymphatic system and may prove beneficial in managing lymphedema are Lymphotox and Lymph Terrain from Apex Energetics.

Sadly, there is no magic bullet for lymphedema. Having a place to share information and encourage each other like Lymphoedema – Let’s Talk is so important. I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn and to shed some light on the ever growing problem of lymphedema.

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