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Cancer-Related Lymphedema


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When you are treated for cancer with surgery, your surgeon may also remove lymph nodes where cancer has spread. This is especially common with breast cancer, gynecologic cancers, or head and neck cancers.

But when lymph nodes are removed, it can cause fluid (called lymph) to build up in your limbs, limiting your range of motion and leaving you uncomfortable. Millions of cancer survivors experience lymphedema every year.

PLEASE NOTE: Not all lymphedema is related to cancer. Click to learn about non-cancerous lymphedema care at the University of Miami Health System. 

Lymphedema is the most common lymphatic disorder. Its affects the lymphatic system — the network of tissues, vessels, and organs that move a specific fluid called lymph throughout the body. Lymphatic disorders occur when the lymphatic system is damaged or blocked, preventing lymph from circulating normally.

Lymphedema is swelling that frequently occurs as a side effect of cancer surgery, affecting millions of cancer survivors each year. The condition can occur when a surgeon removes lymph nodes where cancer has spread. Removing the nodes can cause lymph to pool in the limbs, which may limit your range of motion and leave you feeling uncomfortable.

The multidisciplinary experts at Sylvester offer screening and prevention options for cancer patients at risk of developing lymphedema. For those experiencing symptoms, our experts may recommend physical therapy, medications, dietary management, or surgical treatments.


Care and treatment of lymphatic disorders

Treatment will depend on your diagnosis, but options include:

Complete decongestion therapy (CDT)
Experts at Sylvester and the University of Miami Health System have developed a specialized rehabilitation program to help patients with lymphedema. CDT includes a range of treatments designed to stimulate the flow of lymph, reduce the risk of infection, and decrease fluid buildup.

One type of CDT is manual lymph drainage (MLD). A gentle massage technique, MLD helps move the lymph fluid out of the swollen extremity, such as an arm or leg. A specialist then applies a short-stretch compression bandage to the affected limb to prevent the fluid from re-collecting. Our team of certified lymphatic specialists will help you develop a home lymphatic program, including therapuetic exercise, and choose the correct compression garments to maintain the reduction of arm and leg swelling.

Compressive garments/bandaging
Specialists apply short-stretch bandages to an affected area to provide pressure and reduce fluid buildup. 

Excision surgery
Doctors may use this treatment to remove fibrous, or damaged, tissue caused by lymphedema.

A common type of surgery called liposuction may be used to remove fat cells that can be stimulated to grow when fluid spreads into tissue from lymphedema. This can improve the function and the aesthetics of the limb.

Lymphovenous bypass
In this innovative treatment, specialized microsurgery techniques create a new path for lymph fluid to move through the body. This procedure helps reduce swelling, improve function and range of motion, and drain fluid more efficiently.

Pneumatic pumps
As a treatment for lymphedema, pneumatic pumps use air to inflate a sleeve that encases the affected area. The sleeve has multiple chambers that inflate one after the other to prompt fluid to flow in the right direction.

Vascularized lymph node transplant
In this advanced microsurgical treatment for lymphedema, a surgeon moves lymph nodes from one area of the body to an area where they have been removed. The newly placed lymph nodes help improve the flow of fluid and reduce swelling, tightness, and pain.

Immediate lymphatic reconstruction
This advanced surgery can decrease the risk of developing lymphedema after lymph nodes are removed to treat cancers. In this innovative treatment, microsurgery is performed to restore a path for lymph fluid to drain immediately after lymph nodes are removed. The surgery aims to prevent the development of lymphedema in high-risk patients.

Why Choose Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center?

The only comprehensive lymphedema program in South Florida. As one of only three lymphedema surgery programs in Florida, we offer innovative techniques to prevent and treat this condition. We take a collaborative approach to provide you individualized lymphedema care. Our cancer rehabilitation medicine specialists offer holistic care to improve your function and overall well-being. You won’t find this specialty care anywhere else in South Florida.

Fellowship-trained, highly-specialized surgeons. Our plastic and reconstructive surgeons have extensive fellowship training in microsurgery, the type of surgery required to treat lymphedema.

Personalized guidance to help you live your best life. Cancer rehabilitation medicine physician specialists (also known as physiatrists) are trained to guide patients in the prevention and management of unwanted side effects that may arise due to cancer and cancer treatments. Your cancer physiatrist will help you address limitations in function, strength, and pain to improve your overall function and quality of life.

Sylvester is an NCI-designated cancer center. The National Cancer Institute has recognized Sylvester for its outstanding work conducting research in its laboratories, treating patients in its clinics and hospitals, and reaching out to medically underserved communities with innovative prevention strategies. The team earned this distinction through its outstanding work conducting research in its laboratories, treating patients in its clinics and hospitals, and reaching out to medically underserved communities with innovative cancer prevention strategies. Our physicians work to advance the field of lymphedema treatment and prevention with new procedures.

Multidisciplinary care, all in one place. The lymphedema surgery team is part of the multidisciplinary care you can receive at Sylvester. All your physicians and providers, from your oncologist to your physical therapist, your surgeon to your dietitian, work together to improve your quality of life.

Teaching the next generation of healthcare providers. As an academic program, our physicians train the next generation of doctors and providers in many different specialties to offer high-quality care for lymphedema. With more providers experienced in lymphedema care, future patients can get the treatment they need, when they need it.

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