Dr. Anna Towers is an expert on an ailment that impacts an estimated one million Canadians, but is understood by far fewer: lymphedema. Dr. Towers is a Director of the Lymphedema Program at Montreal’s McGill University Health Centre, where she’s been running lymphedema clinics since 1995.

About 160,000 of lymphedema diagnoses are cancer-related, representing side effects of cancer surgery or radiotherapy. Other causes can include obesity or chronic venous disease of the leg. Dr. Towers works on a team that assesses and recommends tailored therapy to patients who have lymphedema as a complication of cancer treatments.

Chronic but manageable

“Lymphedema manifests as chronic, lifelong swelling and inflammation of various degrees,” she says. It is caused by a buildup of fluid that occurs when a patient’s lymphatic system cannot function as it normally would. According to Dr. Towers, lymphedema can affect patients on any part of the body, but most commonly affects an arm, or one or both legs.

Make no mistake though: lymphedema is not simply a cosmetic problem. “It can lead to loss of function, inability to work, chronic wounds, and infections of the skin and underlying tissues that can be life-threatening,” says Dr. Towers.

Since lymphedema is a chronic condition, it requires lifelong management and support to treat it. Watching your weight and exercising are important steps to treating lymphedema, in addition to using compression garments, bandaging, and  other treatments recommended by a lymphedema specialist.

Dr. Towers says some health professionals are not aware of how common the condition is and often miss out on opportunities for early diagnosis.  In fact, patients “can be referred for treatment very late or not at all.” Those who’ve been treated for cancer and have had lymph nodes or vessels removed, or affected during treatment are at a lifelong risk for lymphedema.

More awareness, earlier detection

Because of the gap in information on lymphedema, Dr. Towers says there is little or no coverage under Medicare for proven decongestive lymphedema therapies however, she believes that “with better awareness and education,  chronic edema will be prevented or managed in the early stages, before complications develop.” Those afflicted with lymphedema can learn more about treatments offered in their area by visiting the webpage of their provincial lymphedema associations.