Having lymph nodes removed or radiated as a result of breast cancer treatment puts the body at life-long risk of lymphoedema. This risk does not mean that everyone will develop lymphoedema but it is worth doing what you can to support your lymphatic system to reduce the risk of occurrence or prevent existing lymphoedema from worsening.
In this blog post we will discuss what the lymphatic system is, how it works, lymphoedema and most importantly the ways that you can support it to function at its best.
So what exactly is the lymphatic system?
The lymphatic system is part of the immune system. It also maintains fluid balance and plays a role in absorbing fats and fat-soluble nutrients.
The lymphatic or lymph system involves an extensive network of vessels that passes through almost all our tissues to allow for the movement of a fluid called lymph. Lymph circulates through the body in a similar way to blood.
There are about 600 lymph nodes found in the body. These nodes swell in response to infection, due to a build-up of lymph fluid, bacteria, or other organisms and immune system cells.
What is lymphoedema?
Sometimes lymph nodes are removed or radiated as part of breast cancer treatment. If lymph fluid is unable to effectively flow around the body due to damage to the lymph vessels or nodes it can start to build up in the tissues of the limbs, neck and trunk, this is called lymphoedema.
So what can you do to support your lymphatic system?
MOVEMENT IS MEDICINE – A study carried out by Cancer Research UK concluded that exercise and movement can reduce the risk of lymphoedema in breast cancer. The lymphatic system does not have a pump of its own like the heart, so it relies on muscular contraction, respiration, arterial pulse pressure and the natural pull of gravity to maintain tissue fluid balance and promote lymph drainage. Yoga, dynamic movement and breathing techniques can also help with this movement of lymph.
Did you know that when we are exercising the lymph fluid in our body is flowing at a 2-3 times greater rate than when we are resting?
DAILY LYMPH DRAINAGE EXERCISES – This simple, gentle, sequence of exercises can help the proteins in lymph fluid to be reabsorbed. The gentle contraction of the muscles in and around your trunk, chest, arm and shoulder can assist lymph fluid to move back to your blood circulation. These exercises are suitable for people who are at least 6-8 weeks post-op, all scars have healed and their doctor has said it’s ok to return to exercise. You can download a free Lymph drainage poster when you sign up to Gentle Recovery’s newsletter – head to the bottom of the home page www.gentlerecovery.co.uk
SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE – when returning to exercise and strengthening it is very important to start gently and progress steadily, even over-stretching can cause lymphoedema. Gentle yoga-based exercise is a great place to start. It’s also important to ensure you have at least 90% of your full range of movement at you shoulder, arms and chest before you start adding in resistance exercise.
GENTLE STRETCHING AND MASSAGE – Lymph is embedded in the fascia. Fascia is a thin, collagen, casing of connective tissue that surrounds and holds every organ, blood vessel, bone, nerve fibre and muscle in place. Surgery and radiation can cause tightness and scarring of the fascia. This can greatly impede the flow of lymph so learning gentle stretches to mobilise scar tissue and fascia can help to open these blockages.
You may also want to seek out a qualified therapist who can teach you massage techniques to help mobilise scar tissue – ask your medical team about this.
DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING – taking deeper, belly breaths regularly, can get the diaphragm working like a pump encouraging lymph low back towards the heart. Try breathing down in to your belly so that you can feel and see your belly rise on each inhale and fall away as you exhale (can you feel what is happening inside your body when you do this?). Breathing deeply and fully in this way massages your thoracic duct, the largest lymph vessel in the body, and this encourages the movement of the lymph fluid back up to the heart. This fluid passes through the lymph nodes to help filter out bacteria, waste and toxins. The lymph nodes also also contain infection-fighting whits blood cells. Once filtered, the lymph travels towards the two lymphatic ducts just below the neck where they rejoin the bloodstream through the subclavian vein which carries waste towards the liver and kidneys where it is processed and then excreted along with the rest of the bodies waste products either in urine or feaces.
As you can see, there is so much you can do to support your lymphatic system, I hope that this post has helped you to understand more deeply how your lymphatic system functions and how the above self-care suggestions can help. You don’t need to run marathons or be on the move the whole time, moving and deep breathing little and often can make a huge difference.
If you would like support or guidance in creating a self-care routine to help manage the risk of lymphoedema please do reach out.