Nearly 40 percent of breast cancer survivors suffer from lymphedema, a chronic condition that causes body limbs to swell from fluid buildup as a result of lymph node removal and radiation therapy.
NYU College of Nursing cancer researcher Mei R. Fu recently published two research articles on living with lymphedema: “Self-Management of Lymphedema” in Nursing Research and “Psychosocial Impact of Lymphedema” in Psycho-Oncology. Both draw on her research and reviews of the current literature on the condition.
In the Nursing Research article, Fu—working with Sheila Ridner, professor at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, and in partnership with Jane Armer, professor at the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing, and the American Lymphedema Framework Project—reviewed published research about lymphedema self-management in order to determine which practices were most effective in managing the condition.
The researchers found that full-body exercise, such as weight lifting and stretching, was likely to be effective in minimizing lymphedema symptoms. In addition, the researchers concluded that complete decongestive therapy, a comprehensive treatment approach that incorporates skin care, exercise, manual lymphatic drainage, and bandaging of swollen limbs, also helps patients effectively manage the condition in order to minimize their symptoms and maintain their quality of life.
In Fu’s Psycho-Oncology article, her team found that a critical limitation of current literature is the lack of conceptual or operational definitions for the psychosocial impact of lymphedema. Fu’s findings suggest that the lack of social, family, and professional support, along with the time-consuming daily lymphedema care, lack of public sensitivity to the problem, insufficient health insurance, and financial burdens all contribute to tremendous psychosocial effects experienced by these patients.
The review identifies the emotional impact of lymphedema, which includes negative self-identity, emotional disturbance, and psychological distress. Socially, it includes marginalization, financial burden, perceived diminished sexuality, social isolation, unsupportive work environment, public insensitivity, and perceived social abandonment.