Our lymphatic system regulates tissue fluid balance and immunity, and is responsible for filtering lymph fluid from our body’s tissues through the lymph nodes.
The lymphatic system, when not working efficiently, can cause a condition known as lymphoedema, which is a term used to describe swelling in the body which occurs as a result of a build-up of fluid. Lymphoedema can occur in any part of the body however is most common in the arms or legs.
Lymphoedema can occur as a result of genetic predisposition – with genes that are important to this fluid draining process becoming altered, leading to abnormalities in the ability of these vessels to collect or transport fluid or cells.
A cancer may also hijack the lymphatic system in its attempt to spread through the body. Lymphatics are widely targeted in cancer treatment by surgery and/or radiotherapy.These treatments either remove lymph nodes harbouring cancer cells, or attempt to kill these cancer cells through targeted radiotherapy.
Despite advances in radiotherapy, damage to normal tissue is unavoidable, often leading to side effects years later, with lymphoedema being one of the most devastating side effects of cancer treatment.
Patients may suffer painful, heavy swollen limbs with impaired function (especially of the hand); and may also suffer recurring serious infection or dislocation. The highest incidence of lymphoedema in Australia is amongst breast cancer survivors, while other groups include survivors of melanoma and colorectal and gynaecological cancers.
Irrespective of cause, lymphoedema is a progressive, incurable condition that can significantly impact a patients’ quality of life, despite having ‘survived’.