Skip to main content

We often underestimate the importance of the lymphatic system in our post-cancer recovery. After all, no one talks about it!

Your oncologist or radiologist probably didn’t mention anything. Your surgeon was focused on removing the tumour. It is often not until years down the track that you realise how your chemotherapy, radiotherapy and/or surgery may have affected your lymphatic system and the long-term implications that may continue to affect you for the rest of your life.

“So what?” I hear you say! “I’m just grateful to be alive!” I hear you… I’m grateful too! However, lymphatic integrity is the last thing on your specialist mind, but should be at the forefront of yours, as this that can affect your quality of life post-cancer.

The lymphatic system acts as your “garbage disposal” system, collecting toxins and excess fluid from around your body, and sending it to your elimination organs, or past your heart and lungs for a bit of fluid “recycling”! It’s a beautifully balanced little system… most of the time. It is also important for your immune system, as it transports white blood cells (your infection-fighting friends!) around your body.

So when you’ve had surgery which may have included lymph node removal, or radiation treatment that disturbs their function, this perfectly balanced system slows down. The knock-on effect? Fluid retention…and potentially more at risk of infections down the track (“immune-compromised” for those of you enjoying the biology lesson!)

And we’re not talking about “cankles” here, we ‘re talking about oedema (yeah… that’s the fancy word for fluid retention!) in a whole limb, or part of your body that is constant and uncomfortable. This “slow flow” can result in lymph node fibrous, where those nodes just won’t be able to collect fluid, leading to the puffy skin you find with fluid retention, and over time impacting on your body’s ability to fight infection.

So… what can you do about? Here’s my top 3 tips for minimising fluid retention:

1. Dry Body brushing
Body brushing is a great tool to encourage lymph flow and improve circulation to your skin. Most of your lymphatic system vessels are just underneath the skin, so a gentle body brush directing your strokes towards the heart and lungs will encourage lymph and blood flow and minimise fibrosis. For lymphatic health, dry body brush twice weekly before you get in the shower or bath. A jute body brush is a great option for the first-time body-brusher as it a little gentler than say coconut fibre.

2.Stay hydrated
Some people mistakenly believe they should reduce their water intake. When you are dehydrated your body will retain fluid to keep the balance, so maintaining adequate water intake (1.5 – 2.5L per day depending on the person and activity levels) will help support your lymphatic system.

3.Get moving
Find a form of movement you enjoy… and do it! Movement engages the muscles and these in turn compress on the lymph vessels encouraging lymph flow through the vessels. What do I do? I’m a walker (running and jogging are off the cards due to a lumbar disc issue) and with my hubby, I also do ballroom & Latin dance classes (no competition, just movement for the joy it brings!)

With these tips I am able to manage the slight oedema I get in my left arm due to radiotherapy for Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma some 17 years ago. Give these a go… I’d love to hear about your experiences trying them out!