Justin Riutta on

Lymphedema myths and latest facts

“Recent data shows the chance of breast cancer patients getting lymphedema has decreased from 20 percent to 10 percent over the past decade.”

Justin C Riutta, MD

Lymphedema expert dispels myths, shares latest facts

  • Fact: fewer than 10 percent of breast cancer patients will develop lymphedema.
  • Fact: exercise is recommended for patients with lymphedema.
  • Fact: don’t reach into a hot oven if you have lymphedema.

During The Breast of Everything podcast, Justin Riutta, MD, director of Breast Cancer Rehabilitation and Lymphedema for Beaumont Health in Royal Oak, Michigan, sets the record straight on lymphedema, dispelling the many myths and misinformation patients are hearing and reading. Here is an excerpt from the podcast, hosted by Comprehensive Breast Surgeons Eric Brown, MD, FACS; and Linsey Gold, DO, FACS, FACOS.

Lymphedema is a swelling disorder caused by an accumulation of protein-rich fluid that usually drains through the body’s lymphatic system. It most commonly affects the arms or legs and occurs when the lymph vessels are not able to drain lymph fluid adequately, often as a result of cancer treatments that remove or damage lymph nodes. Lymphatic fluid normally is transported in our body by a network of vessels and nodes, but when these are damaged or removed, the lymphatic fluid cannot adequately be transported and may result in fluid backing up in body tissues, causing swelling and lymphedema.

The most common causes of lymphedema include:

  • cancer – cancer cells block lymph vessels
  • radiation therapy for cancer – radiation can cause scarring and inflammation of lymph nodes
  • cancer surgery – lymph nodes often are removed to help identify if the cancer has spread

Thanks to improvements in surgical and radiation therapy techniques over the past decade, the incidence of lymphedema has decreased significantly. In fact, recent data shows the chance of breast cancer patients getting lymphedema has decreased from 20 percent to 10 percent over the past decade.d

Here are a few “dos and don’ts” for lymphedema patients, as recommended by Dr. Riutta:

  • Do avoid sunburn, cuts, scratches, pin pricks, bites, burns and other irritations to the skin of the affected limb.
  • Do wear medical-grade compression sleeves to reduce swelling, decrease pain and improve limb mobility. Purchase these items from a medical supply company.
  • Do wear a compression sleeve to manage air travel pressure.
  • Do resume physical activity. Low mobility is linked to a greater risk of lymphedema. Regain as much function as you can in the affected limb.
  • Do lift. Contrary to what the internet may say, you can lift more than 10 pounds.
  • Do stretch. Patients often are afraid to stretch because it will affect their radiation therapy. This is not true.
  • Do not go into a hot tub or sauna as they promote lymphatic fluid.

The earlier we can catch lymphedema, the better the outcome, reports Dr. Riutta. The goal is to manage the condition rapidly: get the pain under control quickly with more mobility, work to get complete range of motion back, get plenty of sleep, stay well hydrated, eat right and exercise, he recommends.

If you follow your physician’s guidance to manage your symptoms, and practice good self-care, patients with lymphedema can have the quality of life they want and deserve.