If you’ve had a lymphedema diagnosis (or lymphoedema, if you’re British, Australian or Canadian) after having lymphatic vessels removed during the course of your breast cancer treatment, you’ll know it’s painful, you’ll never want it back and will do everything in your power to banish it forever.
I only ever struggled with it once and this was on a hot Australian summer day when I was going through chemotherapy. At first I thought I had a sunburn, but my skin wasn’t red. My arm felt really sore from elbow to wrist and it wasn’t until I compared one wrist to the other that I could see the swelling on the affected side. I was rather surprised because I’d only had three lymph nodes excised!
Unfortunately, lymph node removal and/or radiation often damage the lymphatic system. As a result, fluid backs up and limbs or other parts of the body swell up, kind of like a clogged drain pipe, which is a good analogy because the lymphatic system is the body’s waste removal device.
What Exactly Is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is (according to dictionary.com) “the accumulation of lymph in soft tissue with accompanying swelling, often of the extremities: sometimes caused by inflammation, obstruction, or removal of lymph channels”. Lymphedema, as it relates to breast cancer, sometimes occurs after some (or all) lymph nodes are removed on the side of the body where the cancer occurred.
If you are unsure what purpose the lymphatic system has in the body, or just generally want to know more about the lymphatic system, learn more in this excellent article by Pacific Medical Training.
Lymphedema symptoms can include any or all of the following:
- a feeling of heaviness or tightness
- restriction in range of motion of affected limb
- aching or discomfort in affected limb
- recurring infections in affected limb
We are very fortunate to be living in the age where the sentinel node biopsy is performed. Years ago, the standard of care for women with breast cancer was to undergo mastectomy and complete axillary clearance of any lymph nodes (the removal of most or all lymph nodes on the affected side).
For those who have lost more lymph nodes – which often happens if the sentinel node biopsy indicates that the disease has progressed beyond the breast – lymphedema is much more prevalent and can vary from mild to severe cases. Not long ago I witnessed a case of elephantiasis – the poor people going through this! One arm appears to be completely normal, while the other is swollen almost beyond recognition. I can’t imagine how painful that would be – prompting me to write this article.
Natural Alternatives for Lymphedema
- Manual Lymph Drainage – this is generally performed by a licensed specialist or specifically trained massage therapist (make sure yours is certified and knows exactly what they’re doing). MLD is non-invasive, very relaxing and gentle, and a key preventive measure. MLD practitioners gently palpate at key points of the body to determine the state of lymphatic circulation, evaluating for poor flow, and with treatment, encourage the proper rhythm, direction, strength, and quality of lymphatic flow. More than 80 years of research have shown the benefits of Manual Lymph Drainage. Please note: regular massage is generally NOT a good idea for lymphedema – it must be the specific Manual Lymph Drainage, a much slower and gentler technique.
- Compression Sleeve – specially designed sleeves help to decongest the backed-up fluid by pressing down on it. The sustained pressure then stimulates the fluid to flow more freely through your system. Your MLD practitioner (see #1 above) may recommend the use of compression bandages which are non-elastic, because the added strength of a more rigid fabric adds more pressure against the affected limb. Interestingly, the non-elastic quality also makes it easier for lymphedema sufferers to wear for longer periods of time. These are especially useful when you are flying somewhere or going up to the mountains as lymphedema tends to worsen at high altitudes.
- Detox Regularly – both inside the body through the use of particular herbs (best recommended by your naturopath), as well as externally through epsom salt baths which help to draw impurities out of your body through your skin. Since the lymphatic system is your body’s internal “cleaning crew” a regular detox helps to keep it cleared out and operating optimally.
- Increase Circulation of Lymph – this can be done in many ways. Yoga, brisk walking, the use of a rebounder (like a small trampoline), cycling, hiking, lifting small hand weights, skin brushing with a loofah for a few minutes each day – all of these can help to increase the circulation of lymphatic fluid.
- Keep Weight Down – Being overweight makes the body and all of its various components work harder because the extra fat is a burden. The higher your body mass, the more difficult it becomes to manage your lymphedema. It’s also true that people with unhealthy body masses are more prone to lymphedema.
- Clean Up Your Diet – your lymphatic system copes better with lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, lean and unprocessed organic meats, herbal teas. Get processed foods and artificially sweetened drinks out of your diet – too many chemicals cause your lymphatic system to work that much harder. Reduce salt intake because salt makes you retain fluids that much easier. Probiotics are helpful to keep friendly bacteria in the intestines thriving, support the immune system, and aid in toxin removal. An excellent book to buy would be Healing Diet: A Total Health Program to Purify Your Lymph System and Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease, Arthritis, and Cancer by Dr Gerard Lemole.
- Freshly Ground Flaxseed – a great natural anti-inflammatory, flaxseed is also a gentle blood thinner, which helps lymphatic fluid to flow better.
- Elevation – simply elevating the affected limb can be helpful.
- Anti-inflammatory Essential Oils – see my article Good Massage Oil Recipe for Lymphedema.
- Lymphedema Pump – a specialized piece of equipment that plugs in, has a pneumatic pump which gently compresses the affected limb and helps to improve lymphatic flow. Just “google” the words lymphedema pump and you’ll get quite a few manufacturers’ websites.
- Meditation & Visualization – your brain is more powerful than you think. You can stimulate your lymphatic system with meditation and visualization. If you need help with meditation, see my page about it.
- Energy Medicine – the use of acupuncture, Reiki, Healing Touch – all are energy-based techniques that can help to stimulate the flow of lymph within the body.
- Herbal Medicine – contact your naturopath for the best herbs to assist the lymphatic system. Something easy you can do is drink ginger tea daily – simply get some fresh, organic ginger and peel about a 1″ piece of it, pour hot water over it and let it steep for 5-10 minutes. Ginger is a wonderful natural anti-inflammatory.
If you would like my help with getting through breast cancer in an inspiring and ultra-healthy way, please sign up for my free e-books and newsletters on the right, and/or “like” me on Facebook (Marnie Clark Breast Health Coach). It is my honor to help you through this.
Thank you for this article. I’ve had lymphedema I’m my left arm since 2005. The last couple of years It has been much worse. I haven’t been able to get a glove and sleeve. I will look into some of these alternatives in my area. I also need to clean up my eating habits. Again thank you for the info and the links
Very informative for me at this stage of journey with her2 positive BC.
Thanks for your comment. I’m so glad to know this has been helpful to you.
I have full body primary lymphodema other than in my right arm & breast… I do SMLD & wear compression hosiery & left sleeve but as a long term insulin dependent diabetic I am now suffering from numbness through neuropathy & scared they will stop letting me wear my compression… I inject 5 tunes a day due to sluggish system & get bouts of cellulitis in injection sites! Would be grateful of any advice please.
Sorry for the delay to answer your question. I would strongly recommend getting yourself to a Chinese medicine practitioner and getting a course of acupuncture to help the neuropathy. Chinese herbs may also be of assistance to improve your condition. I would also recommend seeing a naturopath to look at your diet and see if anything can be improved there through different nutrition and supplements. I hope this information helps. Sending blessings your way today.
This is a fabulous article! Thank you for taking the time to put this together… I will be sharing with my clients who can benefit from your information and really appreciate your sharing with the world!