Take special care if you’re in a job that puts your arm or hand at risk of cuts or exposure to harsh substances. Examples include chef, gardener, doctor or surgeon, chemist or researcher, and florist. Protect your hands with gloves and minimize your risk of injury.
You’ll also need to take precautions if your job requires heavy use of your arm, hand, and/or upper body — including repetitive or intense lifting, reaching, pushing, or pulling. Some examples include daycare teacher, nurse’s aide, cleaner, mail or package delivery person, assembly line worker, construction worker, and waitress. These are professions where you’re not sitting at a desk or computer, but actively using your limb all day.
It’s critical to work with an experienced lymphedema therapist to strengthen the arm gradually and condition it for work-related tasks. Try not to go right back to heavy arm and upper body use within a few weeks after surgery. Every woman is different, but it can take anywhere from 6 weeks to 2 months to get the arm and upper body back in condition, says Nicole Stout, MPT, CLT-LANA, Senior Rehabilitative Services Practice Leader at Kaiser Permanente, Mid Atlantic Region.
In order to have that time, you may need to:
- Educate your employer about lymphedema and ask for a temporary change in role. Many people have never heard of lymphedema as a complication of breast cancer treatment. You may need to educate your employer about this, perhaps supported by a note from your doctor or therapist. Ask for temporary adjustments in your role until your therapist says it’s OK to return to your previous tasks. For example, if you’re a mail carrier, you might be able to take a desk job for a while. If you’re a daycare teacher working with babies or toddlers, ask the other teachers if they can handle all of the lifting for now — or try switching to a room with older children who don’t need to be carried.
- Investigate whether a work leave may be possible thanks to short-term disability insurance, if you have it or your employer provides it, or the Family Medical Leave Act. Either may be an option for taking time off so you can focus on conditioning your arm and upper body.
When you return to work, your therapist might recommend wearing a compression sleeve or garment as a precaution. He or she will consider your daily work tasks in addition to other risk factors you have for developing lymphedema. If you do start wearing a sleeve to work, you may find that your colleagues are curious about it. You might want to prepare a set answer you can use to respond to their questions.
To learn more about employment and treatment issues, visit our section on Breast Cancer and Your Job. This section also will be helpful if you already have lymphedema and need to take time off from work for treatment. At least initially, treatment for lymphedema can be time-consuming, requiring frequent visits to your lymphedema therapist to bring symptoms under control. Talk to your employer and co-workers about your condition and why you need to take time off during the day. You’ll need to ease up on tasks that involve the arm and upper body until you get your symptoms under control. Your therapist can help you figure out what’s safe.