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The Lymphedema Diet
Lymphedema is a painful and often debilitating swelling that can affect the arms and legs and occurs after surgery to remove the lymph nodes. The lymphatic system is part of the body’s immune system, and includes lymph fluid—which carries proteins, red blood cells and white blood cells throughout the body—and lymph nodes, which filter lymph fluid. Without lymph nodes, which surgeons often remove to see if breast cancer has spread, lymph fluid can build up and cause swelling.
The condition is usually treated with massage therapy, which helps stimulate the flow of the lymph fluid, or with tight compression garments. Studies have also shown that lymphedema strikes harder at overweight breast cancer patients, but now a new study reveals that there might be a new tool for these patients: weight loss.
Dietitian Clare Shaw, Ph.D., at London’s Royal Marsden Hospital, inspired by the hospital nurses’ efforts to research all aspects of patient care for a better lymphedema treatment, studied whether dieting could help alleviate the condition. To investigate her idea, Shaw placed some patients on a low-calorie diet and others on a fat-free diet or no diet at all. After six months she found that no matter which diet the patient maintained, lymphedema eased if the patient lost weight.
“Weight loss is a good thing for people with breast cancer; this is just one more reason,” says Clifford Hudis, M.D., chief of the Breast Cancer Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, who was not involved in the study. Shaw says it isn’t known why weight loss affects lymphedema, although some hypothesize that it is due to loss of fat under the skin.