Leg Lymphedema: Cancer’s Nasty Little Secret

Author: Ivanhoe Newswire/WINK News
Published: Updated:
Lymphedema is a condition where fluid builds up in a person’s arms or leg. (CREDIT: Ivanhoe Newswire)

More than 10 million Americans suffer from lymphedema, extreme swelling of the limbs. Now, new research could shed light on lower limb lymphedema after cancer treatment.

It’s been called cancer’s “nasty little secret.”

Lymphedema is a condition where fluid builds up in a person’s arms or leg. Often, it’s a result of damage to the lymph nodes or lymphatic system after cancer surgery, chemo, or radiation.

Now, new research assesses the life-altering changes in lower limbs of older cancer survivors.

Sixty-four-year-old Sandy Mustard beat cervical cancer in 2005 but she wasn’t prepared for the chronic health problems that started years later, suddenly after a hike.

“My left leg was very swollen from the ankle up to about my knee,” Mustard recalls.

That was the start of years of lymphedema – painful swelling and dangerous skin infections.

Mustard said, “they told me there’s no cure for lymphedema.”

Electra Paskett, PhD, and professor in the Department of Medicine and the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control at The Ohio State University, knows first-hand.

Professor Paskett is a three-time cancer survivor.

“My youngest was two years old when it was found on just a routine mammogram,” Professor Paskett says.

Professor Paskett developed lymphedema in her arm. Now, she focuses her research on survivors of other cancers.

“Lymphedema of the lower extremities is extremely understudied,” Professor Paskett explains to Ivanhoe.

Professor Paskett found that more than 30 percent of ovarian, endometrial, and colorectal cancer survivors develop leg lymphedema.

The researchers found these survivors have reduced function. Many can’t walk, stand, or drive a car.

Professor Paskett says, “if they’re not able to get up and move around, then that severely impacts their health.”

Sandy Mustard wears a compression stocking to control the swelling and had specialized surgeries to reduce the size of her leg. After years of struggling with the condition, she can kneel and work in her flower garden.

“Now, I can continue to do that – stand on my legs for a long period of time,” Mustard emphasizes.

Professor Paskett says cancer survivors are always at risk for developing lymphedema.

The women in the study developed the condition between one and a half years to 20 years after they were diagnosed with cancer.

Professor Paskett says the research emphasizes the importance of regular assessment of lower extremity lymphedema in older survivors. That’s not currently part of the national clinical practice guidelines.

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