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Supporting patients with lymphoedema

Posted on: Tuesday, 2nd March 2021 by Margaret Sneddon, Chair of the British Lymphology Society

LA photograph of Margaret Sneddon, Chair of the British Lymphology Societyymphoedema Awareness Week is 1st to 6th March 2021, and the British Lymphology Society is launching the EveryBodyCan campaign aimed at raising awareness of the condition with the public and health care practitioners alike. In this blog, Margaret Sneddon, Chair of the BLS, explains why it’s so important that healthcare professionals recognise the symptoms of lymphoedema early. 

At the BLS, we know that those living with or recovering from cervical cancer can develop lymphoedema (chronic swelling) and hope that our new campaign will reach many of those people and the health care practitioners who treat them.  

What is lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is a chronic inflammatory condition caused by a failure of the lymphatic system. It is thought to affect over 400,000 people in the UK and is a known complication of cancer treatment that involves removal or radiotherapy treatment to lymph nodes. 

The lymphatic system can be thought of as a waste disposal system that takes tissue fluid and waste products away from the tissues around your skin, fat, muscle and bone. It plays a key role in immunity, defending the body against infection.  

If fluid is not removed, swelling occurs. This is usually, but not always, in the limbs – in cervical cancer, this can include the legs and pelvic area. 

As fluid is not being moved, potentially harmful cells are not flushed away. Over time this may cause inflammation, putting the individual at risk of wounds that are difficult to heal and infections, called cellulitis, which can be very serious. There may also be leakage of lymph through cracks in the skin if it is overstretched. 

Symptoms to look out for

Your patients might report:

  • feelings of tightness, discomfort or possibly tingling in the skin
  • clothes, including shoes and jewellery, feeling tighter
  • a cellulitis attack (a bacterial infection of the skin).

Lymphoedema is a very distressing condition not just because of the appearance, but also due to the discomfort or even pain of an enlarged, heavy limb that may limit mobility and function. 

If untreated, the condition of lymphoedema is likely to worsen over time as these symptoms compound. Early recognition and treatment is always easier and more effective than waiting until later stages of the condition. 

Download the 5 things every Healthcare Professional should know about Lymphoedema/Chronic Oedema >

Ways you can support patients

Ask about any symptoms

If you know that a patient has had cancer treatment, check in with them. Prompting them to think about the symptoms we mention above just might make a difference in finding lymphoedema early.

Support them in keeping active

One of the best ways of keeping your lymphatic system healthy is to be active. The lymphatic system does not have a pump, like the heart, so we need to help it along by using our large and small muscles. It doesn’t always have to exercise; any movement is better than none and there are activities suitable for all abilities.

Our EveryBodyCan campaign asks everyone to find a 3 minute activity to get their lymph flowing. This could be doing some heel raises at the desk while responding to an email, some deep breathing while the kettle boils or washing up a few pots in the sink instead using the dishwasher. We’re calling this your Secret Weapon for your lymphatic system – ask your patient what theirs is.

We also want those living with lymphoedema to know that you can continue to do the activities you love, so long as you work with the support of your health care professional. So many people give up their favourite activities for fear or exacerbating their condition, but with proper education, care and compression, most people can continue with their exercise or sports. 

Signpost them to further support

Organisations like the BLS, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and the Lymphoedema Support Network offer information and support about lymphoedema, including tips for managing the condition. The Lymphoedema Support Network can also connect patients with local groups. 

Make time for your own learning

During Lymphoedema Awareness Week, we’ll be sharing educational videos on our website and social media and we always have lots of resources available. Visit our website to find free resources for healthcare professionals and patients, as well as tips on activities, leaflets and more. 

You can join the BLS for free as a Friend of the BLS, to access free resources and education, and be kept up to date with emerging practical advice for supporting patients.