What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a condition that can develop due to the removal of or damage to lymph nodes as a part of your cancer treatment. Not everyone that is treated for breast cancer will develop lymphedema. Lymphedema can occur days, months or years after breast cancer treatment.
Lymphedema is characterized by swelling that occurs when there is a build-up of fluid in soft body tissues due to the lymph system being damaged or blocked. It can occur in one arm or leg, although both arms or both legs may be swollen.
Once lymphedema occurs, it never fully goes away. It must be managed for the rest of your life. It can be effectively controlled with proper treatment. You may be asked to have blood pressures, blood tests and injections done with the unaffected arm following your surgery. Talk to your doctor about this and other things you can do to try to prevent lymphedema from occurring.
Possible Signs of Lymphedema
While these symptoms can be signs of other conditions, it is important to let your doctor know right away if you think you have developed lymphedema. There are things that can be done to try to keep it from getting worse.
- Swelling of arms, hands, fingers, shoulder, chest or legs. The swelling may happen for the first time after a cut, injury, or sunburn; after a long airplane trip; or after an infection in the part of the body that was treated for cancer.
- A feeling of fullness or heaviness in an arm or leg.
- A tight feeling in the skin.
- Trouble moving a joint in the hand, wrist, or ankle.
- A tight feeling in a specific area when wearing clothing.
- Ring, watch, or bracelet may be tight when it wasn’t before.
How is Lymphedema Treated?
Treatment for lymphedema will vary based on the severity and extent of the condition. Treatment should be prescribed by your doctor and carried out by an experienced therapist with specialized training.
Your therapist may help you with manual lymph drainage massage, multi-layered bandaging, compression garments, and patient education.
Insurance Coverage for Lymphedema
Private insurance companies are required to pay for lymphedema therapy under the Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998. Most private health insurance companies will cover a percentage of the purchase of compression sleeves.
Medicare and Medicaid will typically pay for lymphedema therapy as a part of physical therapy coverage. Medicare and Medicaid WILL NOT cover bandages or compression garments.
Before you seek treatment, contact your insurance provider to find out exactly what is covered. It is also a good idea to find out if you need pre-authorization, a copay or if any other requirements apply.