Lymphedema is a condition resulting in the abnormal and debilitating swelling of the extremities that can follow breast cancer surgery. Approximately 30 percent of the 2.4 million breast cancer survivors in the United States have developed lymphedema and all are at a lifetime risk. Physical symptoms include swelling, firmness, pain, fatigue, numbness and impaired limb mobility, but also predisposes patients to fibrosis, cellulitis, infections and septicemia. Psychologically, survivors often feel stigmatized because of the swollen limb which often brings about anxiety, depression and disruption of interpersonal relationships.
“I believe that anyone undergoing breast cancer surgery—whether it is a sentinel node biopsy alone or more extensive axillary surgery—should be informed about the risks of lymphedema,” says Dr. Axelrod. “Until now, we had little evidence of the effectiveness of the behaviors to recognize and reduce symptoms.”
Co-author Mei R. Fu, RN, PhD, ACNS-BC, assistant professor in the College of Nursing at New York University, says this is the first study to show that education can reduce risk of lymphedema. “Nurses can play a leadership role in educating patients about lymphedema and can play a role in improving the quality of life in cancer survivors,” says Fu.
“It is important to identify the early warning signs and symptoms of the condition, as well as determine what interventions to take,” added Dr. Axelrod. “We also enroll patients into ongoing behavior and risk modification trials and work with physical therapists to ensure symptom reduction.”
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