Lymphoedema

Understanding lymphoedema, its causes and how to self-manage the condition puts you in control.

Lymphoedema Screening and Management: Talk to us about becoming a patient Learn more

What is lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is the swelling of a limb and/or parts of the body caused by the lymphatic system not functioning properly and becoming compromised.

The lymphatic system plays an important role in the body’s defence against infection by filtering and removing bacteria. The swelling can occur when the normal process of lymph drainage doesn’t work properly. This can affect certain parts of the body.

Early signs and symptoms of lymphoedema may include an unexplained swelling which increases over time, or you may feel heaviness or dull ache and discomfort in your arm, chest or breast. If left untreated, it can lead to loss of function, and the skin becoming prone to infection.

What causes lymphoedema after breast cancer?

Secondary lymphoedema following breast cancer can result from damage to the lymphatic vessels and/or lymph nodes. This can be caused by surgery, trauma, lymph node removal and radiation therapy to the lymph node regions. A postoperative infection, obesity and some types of chemotherapy can increase the risk of lymphoedema.

As there is no cure for established clinical lymphoedema, the earlier lymphoedema is detected in a sub-clinical stage, the better it can be managed to prevent its development. There is a lot that can be done to reduce your risk of developing lymphoedema.

Lymphoedema screening at Icon

At Icon Cancer Centre, we are proud to provide on-site lymphoedema screening services for patients at some of our centres.

Screening allows for the detection of early stage lymphoedema before you experience side effects or visibly see any changes. For screening to be most effective, a pre-surgery baseline measurement and follow up screening using the SOZO device is recommended. International research has shown that regular screening, education, early detection and intervention of lymphoedema can assist in reducing the long-term impacts caused by the progression of the condition.

This screening service is delivered in partnership with accredited lymphoedema therapists who have extensive experience in the prevention and management of lymphoedema.

These clinics offer:

  • Baseline screening to identify your risk of developing lymphoedema
  • Thorough assessment of patients to identify their individual risk of developing lymphoedema using a SOZO® device, the latest technology for detecting earliest changes of cancer-related lymphoedema
  • Accurate and precise screening for the development and/or progression of lymphoedema, including pre-surgery and follow up screening

To make an appointment or to find out more information about our lymphoedema screening service, contact your nearest centre below.

If your local Icon Cancer Centre isn’t listed, please contact your local Icon team about lymphoedema screening and how they can help, or send us a message.

Lymphoedema management at Icon

Icon’s Lymphoedema Management Program was established in 1989 with the aim to educate and support our patients, teaching skills to achieve independence in managing lymphoedema.

The program is delivered by a team of health professionals with specific expertise in the management of lymphoedema. This team includes medical and nursing staff and occupational therapists. Referral to other relevant healthcare professionals, such as physiotherapists, dietitians or psychologists, can be arranged as required.

Icon’s Lymphoedema Management Program, located at our Chermside day hospital offers:

  • Prevention and early intervention
  • Intensive management
  • Self-management

For patients located outside of the Brisbane region, please contact your local Icon team about your local treatment options and how they can help. Alternatively you can send us a message.

Frequently asked questionsFAQs

What is lymphoedema and how do I recognise it?

Lymphoedema is characterised by swelling of a limb and/or parts of the body caused when the lymphatic system does not function properly.

The swelling occurs as a result of impairment in the normal process of lymph drainage in the affected part of the body. The lymphatic system plays an important role in the body’s defence against infection by filtering and removing bacteria.

Lymphoedema can be recognised by an unexplained swelling. Early signs and symptoms include a dull heaviness, aching or a feeling of fullness in the arm, and rings/jewellery or clothing may feel tight. Over time this swelling increases and can lead to a feeling of heaviness and discomfort in the area. If left untreated, lymphoedema can lead to loss of mobility and the skin becomes prone to infection.

Who is at risk of developing lymphoedema?

Individuals who have undergone surgery and radiation therapy for the treatment of breast cancer are particularly susceptible to lymphoedema. We encourage you to speak with your surgeon, oncologist, breast care nurse or lymphoedema therapist about your specific risk factors for lymphoedema.

When am I at greatest risk of developing breast-cancer related lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema can develop in around 1 in 5 people with breast cancer. The risk is highest in the first one to three years following breast cancer treatment, so this is a common time that you should be on alert for potential signs and symptoms. Regular lymphoedema screening is a good idea particularly if you are considered to be at higher risk.

Unfortunately, your risk never totally goes away, and some people can develop lymphoedema even many years after breast cancer treatment.

What can I do to reduce my risk of developing lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is unfortunately one of the possible side effects of certain treatments for breast cancer.

We know that breast cancer treatment which involves removal of lymph nodes, radiation therapy and some chemotherapy drugs can cause lymphoedema. However, even after having treatments for breast cancer, there are some things that you can do to reduce your risk of lymphoedema such as:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Exercising and keeping active as much as possible
  • Practicing good skin care to help prevent infection
  • Moisturising the skin regularly in an upwards direction towards your armpit
  • Avoiding having injections into the at-risk arm
  • Having regular lymphoedema screening and monitoring
Can lymphoedema be treated?

Early detection and management of lymphoedema helps to promote better outcomes. There are effective treatment programs that can reduce your symptoms, decrease your swelling and teach you how to self-manage your lymphoedema at home.

What causes lymphoedema?

There are two types of lymphoedema: primary and secondary lymphoedema.

  • Primary lymphoedema is the result of a congenital abnormality of the lymphatic system or part of it
  • Secondary lymphoedema can result from damage to the lymphatic vessels and/or lymph nodes. This may be from surgery, the lymph nodes being removed, and/or radiation therapy. Other causes include trauma, infection, obesity and immobility.
What is lymphoedema screening?

Screening and monitoring can help detect lymphoedema in the early stages.  There are a number of different methods of lymphoedema screening such as:

  1. Body measurements – using a tape measure to measure whether there is a difference in circumference between the affected and non-affected arm.
  2. Pitting test – the thumb is pressed down onto the skin on the arm for 60 seconds and released. If there is a visible indentation that is not present on the unaffected arm, this can indicate a fluid buildup in the area.
  3. Perimetry measurement – to test for changes in the circumference and volume of the limb.

These screening methods test whether there is any measurable difference in size between your affected and normal arm or limb at the earliest possible clinical stage.

Bioimpedance spectroscopy using a SOZO device is the newest form of technology for lymphoedema screening that detects the earliest signs of subclinical lymphoedema. During this subclinical stage, there is a small amount of water build-up in the tissue but no noticeable visible signs or symptoms or swelling. If lymphoedema is detected, it can be managed before it progresses to a clinical stage.

How do I prepare for my lymphoedema screening appointment?

It is recommended that prior to your lymphoedema screening appointment you:

  • avoid caffeine for two hours prior
  • avoid exercise for two hours prior
  • avoid alcohol for 12 hours prior
What will happen at my lymphoedema screening appointment?

You will be screened using the SOZO® device – the latest technology for identifying breast cancer-related lymphoedema. You will be asked to remove any jewellery, shoes and socks or stockings, and to stand on what looks like a scale with hand piece and foot plates to receive your lymphoedema screening.  The test takes under two minutes to perform.

You will be provided with a wallet-sized card to record your measurements so you can track any changes in your readings. You will also be advised of what to do if symptoms occur.

What does it cost for lymphoedema screening?

There are no out-of-pocket costs at Icon Cancer Centre for lymphoedema screening appointments for the first 12 months following your baseline screening. If you are referred for therapy and management following your lymphoedema screening, this may be subject to additional costs.

What happens if I’m identified as having early indications of developing lymphoedema?

Our team will provide you with a list of qualified lymphoedema practitioners in your local area who can help provide education and treatment for the early signs and symptoms of lymphoedema.

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