Tips to Improve Quality of Life After Breast Cancer Treatment

by Hannah Punitha on Nov 8 2008 8:42 PM

Staying active, acting early and learning the warning signs of lymphedema - an adverse effect of breast cancer treatment caused by damage to the lymph system - can help women fighting the deadly disease avoid developing chronic lymphedema.

That's what the German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG) has suggested that women can learn more about how to protect themselves from this common and distressing adverse effect of treatment.

Lymphedema is an adverse effect of breast cancer treatment caused by damage to the lymph system. When the lymph system cannot properly remove fluids from around the breast and arm, the fluid gathers and the arm swells. This causes pain and restricts movement. It could become a chronic problem that is hard to treat.

Breast cancer patients can also handle the condition at the Institute's website,

With increasing survival rate, breast cancer treatment is becoming more effective. This, according to the German Institute ups the importance of the quality of life for survivors.

Even with many women having less aggressive breast cancer treatments, around 10 to 20percent will develop lymphedema. We doctors still underestimate the impact on patients' quality of life of treatment adverse effects like lymphedema. The first step to prevention is using therapies that limit the damage to the woman's lymph system, said Professor Peter Sawicki, the Institute's Director.

The next step to better quality of life is to stay active. For a long time, doctors have warned women to limit the use of the arm and be careful about being too active after breast cancer treatment.

But Sawicki said, While women who are developing lymphedema have to protect their arms more, the blanket warnings from the past to all women with breast cancer were never based on strong scientific evidence. In fact, trials of exercise in women with breast cancer have shown that it can improve quality of life without increasing the risk of lymphedema.

However women need to learn about the warning signs of lymphedema and act early.

A feeling of heaviness, heat and swelling in the arm - women need to take action early when this happens in the years after breast cancer treatment. Lymphedema is easier to treat effectively in the early stages, said Sawicki.

The treatment shown to be effective in trials is compression therapy with bandages or compression sleeves.

A special massage technique called lymphatic drainage as well as physiotherapy might be able to help, but this has not been so well-studied.