LYMPHEDEMA – What can you change up?

According to an article from Medical News Today published in July 2013, lymphedema occurs in up to 13% of breast cancer patients, increasing to 40% after lymph node dissection and radiation, and it’s not only breast cancer patients that are at risk: “Surgery and radiation after lymph node removal can cause scarring that blocks the lymph ducts, not only in the underarm but also in the legs, groin, pelvis, or neck after treatment for uterine, prostate, ovarian, or prostate cancer, as well as lymphoma and melanoma.“

WHY am I writing about this topic?  My cousin is a breast cancer survivor and she asked me if there was anything she could be doing differently with her food and/or exercise to help alleviate her symptoms.  Her doctor had advised the lymphedema would progress in severity, but didn’t offer her any “real world” advice beyond what she already knew. Compression garments, massage by specially trained therapists, pneumatic pump therapy and therapeutic exercise overseen by a physical therapist. She wanted to know what ELSE she could personally do. Therefore, I did some research for her.  What I found was interesting and very straightforward.  I keep learning that Food is indeed medicine. What I keep finding out over and over again – what we eat and how we move can make a GREAT impact on our overall health.  What I found out about lymphedema isn’t really any different than basic good nutritional guidelines that we should all be following to safeguard and improve our health.

Lymphedema is a build-up of fluid in soft body tissues when the lymph system is damaged or blocked.  Edema = Swelling.   If you have Lymphedema you know it. It isn’t silent or hidden.   If you have edema or swelling in your hands, arms, legs, feet, neck, groin – please seek medical attention, diagnosis and treatment.  If you have Lymphedema and are reading this – please discuss this information with your doctor to see if it may be right for you.  

If you are a Lymphedema patient and haven’t been referred to a Registered Dietitian –  seek out a referral.   Nutritional support is a vital piece of the treatment plan that often is neglected.  A Health Coach can work with you in conjunction with your medical team to support you in your goals.

Rebounding. Jumping on a mini trampoline.  Rebounding may help move lymphatic fluid through your body and act as a “pump”. If you don’t have a mini trampoline, sit in a sturdy chair and bounce your legs up and down as if jumping on a trampoline.  Before starting any exercise program – consult with your physician.

Lower your sodium intake.  Sodium lurks everywhere and is especially high in processed “convenience” foods. If it’s been packaged, boxed, jarred or canned by the food industry – keep your eye on the label.   Canned vegetables, soups, frozen entrees, condiments, sauces, deli meats and fast food are the primary culprits.   If you cook the majority of your meals from REAL ingredients – you have better control of the quality.   When you are cooking, herbs add flavor without salt.

Potassium rich foods.   We tend to get plenty of sodium in our diets, but not enough potassium. Potassium helps balance out sodium in our diets and is key in helping to decrease blood pressure.   Most folks immediately think bananas when thinking potassium, but they are not the top of the list.  Spinach and dried apricots are high on the list of potassium rich foods.  If you are on medication, always check with your physician or pharmacist since some foods can interact with medications.

Weight Loss.  If you are overweight, losing weight can be beneficial.   The goal is to lose fat while maintaining your muscular strength.  Balanced nutrition and moderate exercise that incorporates weight bearing / resistance exercise is key.  WALKING is an effective, low-impact, weight bearing exercise that most individuals can easily do.   Before starting any exercise program – consult with your physician.

Nutrition.  Balanced.  Lean protein, fiber-rich carbohydrates with an emphasis on eating a variety of vegetables and fruit, and healthy fats.  Minimize sodium and processed grains, sugars and fats.   If you are mindful of crowding OUT fast food and processed “convenience” foods as discussed above – you are on your way to minimizing sodium and processed grains, sugars and fats.  Remember:  Keep it REAL when it comes to your food.

Water.  Drink water as your primary beverage. Get into the habit of having a favorite tumbler that you fill with water and have it with you throughout the day.  Adequate hydration is essential for basic cell function and is especially important for the body to remove waste products.

Flavonoids, Selenium & B-Vitamins.  Flavonoids are compounds from plants that have anti-oxidant properties and are beneficial in reducing inflammation and supporting vein health.  Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. The mineral Selenium also has anti-oxidant properties and has been reported in studies along with B-vitamins as helpful in managing the severity of acute & chronic lymphedema.   Selenium and B-vitamins can be easily obtained in a balanced, varied diet.

Horse Chestnut.  Standardized Horse Chestnut extract is a natural / alternative remedy to support leg edema and to help prevent varicose veins.  As with ANY supplement – consult with your physician. 

STAY healthy. Be STRONG.  Get AFTER IT.

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