What is lymphedema and where can I get help?

April 25, 2013 Providence Regional Cancer System Southwest Washington
Lymphedema is the collection of excess fluid in an arm or leg (or surrounding areas) that results from damage to the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system has two jobs:

  1. Fighting off infections, viruses and cancer cells
  2. Transportation of proteins and waste products, which are used cells (muscle, blood, bone, etc.) that your body will recycle and reuse

When this system is damaged from cancer or its treatments, fluid, protein and used cells back up into the involved extremity, causing it to swell.

What is the lymphatic system?
Up until now, you have probably heard all sorts of information about your immune system, white blood cell counts, and infections. These make up half of your lymphatic system’s daily duties, one if which is to recognize and take care of bacteria, viruses and cancer cells. The other half of its job is to filter and transport all of the by-products made by the body during the course of the day, such as the old red blood cells, muscle cells, bone cells, etc. Along with recycling these cells, it hauls around protein to provide energy and even absorbs many of the nutrients from our food!

These fluids travel along small vessels that are just below the skin from the tips of our fingers and toes up towards the center of our body. Along the way, fluid is processed in lymph nodes to make sure it is safe to be put back into circulation. The main stopping points are the groin, for the legs, and the armpits, for the arms. Once it passes a checkpoint, the cleansed fluid joins your blood in your heart. It is then free to be filtered by your kidneys and liver.

Where do I go for more information about lymphedema?
Your best bet is to see a lymphedema therapist who can assess your specific situation and provide the most appropriate education. Lymphedema therapists are available at local Providence facilities, including Providence Centralia Hospital (PCH), Providence St. Peter’s Hospital (PSPH) and Providence Sound Home Care and Hospice in Olympia (PSHCH).

These services are provided by physical therapists (PT) at PCH and occupational therapists (OT) at PSPH and PSHCH. You must have a referral from your physician for a “PT Evaluation” or “OT evaluation” depending on the requested facility along with a diagnosis of lymphedema.

Contact information is as follows:

  • Providence Centralia Hospital
    914 S. Scheuber Road
    Centralia, WA 98531
  • Providence St. Peters Hospital 
    410 Providence Lane NE
    Emilie Gamelin Pavilion 3rd Floor 
    Olympia, WA 98506-5166
  • Providence Sound Home Care and Hospice
    3432 South Bay Road NE
    Olympia, WA 98506

You can also find some basic information on the National Lymphedema Network’s website at www.lymphnet.org. The areas of most beneficial information are under the Lymphedema FAQs tab at the top left. All of the options under this tab will provide additional useful information. The information on this website is all based on research and scientific findings.

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