Lymphedema is disease which is caused by the collection of lymph fluid just below the skin in the soft tissue. This happens due to the impaired flow of the lymph fluid either due to a trauma or a blockage in the lymphatic vessels. It results in abnormal swelling in the affected part of the body. Generally, the extremities – the arms and the legs, are affected in lymphedema. But, it may occur in other parts of the body as well.
Can Lymphedema Be A Sign of Cancer?
Well, lymphedema very rarely may lead to cancer. It is not a common occurrence. On the other hand, cancer or cancer treatment may be responsible for causing lymphedema. Let us understand this by first having a look at the causative factors for lymphedema.
The causes are different for the two different types of lymphedema. The two types are- primary and secondary lymphedema.
Causes of Primary Lymphedema
Primary lymphedema is a genetic condition. It is caused when there is some issue with the development of lymph vessels or lymph nodes. There are some specific reasons for development of primary lymphedema, such as Milroy’s disease (which starts in the infant stage and the lymph nodes do not develop normally in this disease), Meige’s disease (wherein the lymphedema develops around puberty or at the time of pregnancy. It can occur anytime up to the age of 35) and lymphedema tarda (which is a rare condition and starts after the age of 35).
Causes of Secondary Lymphedema
As mentioned above, secondary lymphedema is caused because of some other condition or disease, if it damages the lymph vessels or lymph nodes. Some causes are listed below-
Infection– infection present in the lymph nodes can cause obstruction in the transport of lymph fluid, thereby causing swelling and resulting in lymphedema.
Surgery– if during a surgery, especially in a cancer surgery, the lymph nodes are injured or removed, it may result in lymphedema.
Cancer And Radiation Therapy- if a cancer grows enough to block the lymph nodes or lymphatic vessels, lymphedema can occur. Also, the radiation therapy used for the treatment of cancer can scar the lymphatic vessels, thereby causing the blockage in the flow of the lymphatic fluid.
Complications of Lymphedema
Lymphedema may sometimes give rise to some serious complications. Infections are the most common complication of a lymphedema. A dangerous bacterial infection called cellulitis may occur as a complication. Also, lymphangitis – infection of the lymph nodes may occur as well. Very rarely, lymphedema may turn into lymphangiosarcoma, which is a rare form of cancer.
Signs And Symptoms of Lymphedema
The first and the prominent sign of lymphedema is a swelling of the affected part. The swelling results due to the accumulation of lymph fluid beneath the skin in the soft tissue. Due to the swelling, the affected part may feel heavy and tight. There may be movement restriction because of this. The joints may get affected and it may become difficult to carry on with the day to day activities even. Pain might be present and there may be some degree of discomfort. The skin becomes thick and leathery as the collected fluid turns thicker and more fibrous in nature. If the condition worsens, it may result in breaking of the skin. As a result, the lymph fluid may leak out. This causes a lot of difficulty in keeping the skin dry and infection free. In some cases, itching can be seen as a result of wetness and infection. Very rarely, the condition may lead to cancer.
Treatment of Lymphedema
Lymphedema has no known cure presently. If detected early, certain measures like compress garments, massage, tight bandages etc., can help in keeping the swelling at bay and provide some relief from pain. These treatments can delay or even prevent the progress of the disease to later, severe stages.