Lymphoedema is considered to be an inflammatory condition that results in fluid building up in the tissues, fibrosis and fatty tissue. Lymphoedema causes changes to the tissues and to the lymphatic vessels themselves.
In the video below, Professor Piller explains why lymphoedema should be detected early, especially in breast cancer patients:
The Australasian Lymphology Association is the leading lymphatic awareness group in Australia and they have a number of position documents relating to all forms of lymphoedema, education and awareness.
One of the most important ones for us, is if you have a diagnosis of cancer, that there is a risk of lymphoedema – but everyone should have access to reasonable screening programs and screening information so that their changes to their tissue structure, to their lymphatic system, their risk of lymphedema can be identified early and it can be managed properly through appropriate education, appropriate referral to a therapist and long-term management.
What are the stages of lymphoedema?
Whether primary or secondary, lymphoedema develops in stages, from mild to severe. The International Society of Lymphology (ISL) identifies the following 4 stages of lymphoedema that describe how obviously or visibly swollen the tissues appear to be:
- Stage Zero (also known as Stage 0, latent or subclinical lymphoedema) – swelling is not visible to the eye, despite a known problem in how the lymphatic system is functioning. As an example of when this type of lymphoedema may be detected is after cancer treatments have damaged the lymphatic system and tissue fluid starts to build up. The swelling at this stage is not obvious to the eye but may be able to be detected through a special technology known as bioimpedance spectroscopy.
- Stage One – represents early onset of the condition where there is an accumulation of tissue fluid with higher protein content, which subsides with limb elevation. The swelling may be pitting at this stage. Pitting refers to being able to push into the tissues and leave a large dent or crater in the tissues as the fluid recedes away from the area being compressed.
- Stage Two – represents established lymphoedema. Elevation alone rarely reduces the swelling and pitting fluid is found in the area. Later on in Stage Two, the limb may or may not pit as fat and fibrosis build up in the tissues.
- Stage Three – represents severe lymphoedema. The tissues will be fibrosed and fatty. Skin changes such as thickening, hyperpigmentation, increased skin folds, fat deposits and warty overgrowth develop.
When detected early, research has shown that lymphoedema is potentially reversible, especially post breast cancer, in Stage Zero. All types of lymphoedema should be detected and managed early.
Learn how you can help detect the early warning signs of breast cancer-related lymphoedema with CANdetect, which currently includes a $100 compression garment voucher from Sigvaris, to help relieve early symptoms in accordance with current evidence-based best practice recommendations.