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Men and Lymphedema

Men are just as likely as women to develop lymphedema after surgery

contributed by Katherine Konosky, OTR/L, MS, CLT-LANA, Occupational Therapy

profile of a middle-aged man

There’s a stereotype that only women with breast cancer develop lymphedema, but that’s not true. Lymphedema, which is swelling that happens when the body’s flow of lymph fluid is damaged or blocked, can occur following any surgery that removes or blocks lymph nodes or following radiation that can damage the superficial lymphatics. So, any cancer-related treatment that removes of blocks lymph nodes can cause lymphedema. The only cancer treatment that only men need to be concerned about is for prostate cancer.

Risk Factors for Lymphedema

Risk factors depend on the type of surgery as well as the person’s individual risk factors. For example, about 16% of melanoma patients develop lymphedema, and roughly 10% of patients with cancers of the urinary system and/or genitals will experience lymphedema.

Someone’s individual risk factors also make them more likely, or less likely to develop lymphedema. These can include:

  • How extensive the surgery was
  • Whether the patient had radiation treatment and to what extent the lymph nodes were targeted
  • Whether the wound took more time than usual to heal
  • Whether the tumor was obstructing the lymph system prior to surgery
  • If there was scarring from the surgery – scar tissue can act as a barrier to the lymph system
  • Pre-existing condition like diabetes, thyroid disease or obesity
  • Stress
  • People with venous disease in their legs prior to inguinal (groin area) lymph node removal

Signs and Symptoms of Lymphedema

  • heaviness or achiness in the at risk body part
  • skin redness
  • firmness/hardness in the affected body part
  • Able to push your thumb into your arm or leg, and the thumbprint remains
  • Change in the limb size
  • Unable to see the veins in the at risk areas
  • Less flexibility in the swollen areas

Lymphedema Self-Care (Prevention)

If the symptoms -- particularly the swelling -- goes untreated, the skin on the impacted area can become infected, scarring can occur, the skin can harden and the swelling can become permanent. It’s therefore important for any lymphedema patient to understand and adopt these elements of self-care:

  • Try to minimize skin or tissue trauma to the involved limb
  • Set a goal to maintain your ideal body weight
  • Modify eating habits to lower salt intake and avoid preservatives/artificial sweeteners
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water
  • Aim for an active lifestyle, because movement stimulates the lymphatic system
  • For people with lymphedema:
    • check with your doctor before starting an exercise program
    • slow progression of weights
    • close monitoring for form/swelling
    • scale back if swelling increases or pain occurs after activity
  • Use Bandages, compression garments, or night garments to decrease / manage swelling

Treatments for Lymphedema

When the self-care doesn't reduce the lymphedema, contact you doctor to learn which of the treatment options is best for you:

  • manual lymph drainage (usually by an occupational therapist or physical therapist)
  • a directional massage
  • deep breathing
  • stretching exercises
  • low level laser
  • pump use if indicated

Continue learning about lymphedema and treatment/prevention

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