Under what circumstance would arm lymphedema prevent a woman from flying in an airplane?
Lymphedema of the arm sometimes results – and is a lingering effect – from treatment for breast cancer.
This secondary lymphedema can occur immediately after breast cancer treatment or years later and is caused by:
• Lymph node dissections
• Radiation treatment
The “swelling” is from accumulated water and protein in the tissues due to an impaired lymphatic drainage system. The situation is permanent but can be managed.
Flying in an Airplane with Lymphedema of the Arm from Breast Cancer Treatment
It would be very unfortunate if a woman denies herself a plane trip simply because she has lymphedema in an arm. This condition, though sometimes painful and unsightly, can be managed with proper care.
“Yes, she’s okay flying,” says Mark Levandovsky, MD, Founder and Medical Director of Preventive Medicine and Cancer Care. Dr. Levandovsky is a board certified internist and oncologist/hematologist in practice for over 17 years.
“Flying is NOT contraindicated with lymphedema, but wearing a compression sleeve will often help to potentially minimize edema exacerbation associated with changes in atmospheric pressure,” explains Dr. Levandovsky.
“She may experience more swelling due to decreased atmospheric pressure; however, that should largely normalize as she lands.”
Why a Woman Might Be Fearful of Flying with Lymphedema in an Arm
They may know it’s possible that the arm could swell during the flight. This means a normal limb becoming edematous, or an edematous limb getting worse.
The combination of reduced air pressure in the plane’s cabin, plus inactivity in a cramped space, can bring on the edema in those at risk or increase this fluid retention in those who already have it.
Nobody wants to be stuck at 35,000 feet with an increasingly swelling limb.
However, as Dr. Levandovsky says, lymphedema should not prevent traveling by air.
Circumstances Under Which Arm Lymphedema Would Prevent Flying
Dr. Levandovsky explains, “If she has a blood clot due to lymphedema and hasn’t been on blood thinners for at least five days, flying wouldn’t be recommended.”
However, a situation such as this means the condition has not been properly managed in the first place.
With proper and ongoing management, a breast cancer survivor can fly all she wants despite having lymphedema in her arm!
Certainly, we can’t believe that absent from the hundreds of millions of people who fly within the U.S. every year are breast cancer survivors who live with secondary lymphedema.
If you have fluid retention in your arm and want to travel by air – be it to a relative’s wedding, a much needed vacation, a business trip or to a funeral of a family member – lymphedema is no excuse to avoid getting into an airplane.
Pre-Flight Preparation Goes a Long Way
• Consult with your doctor or lymphedema specialist with any questions.
• Request an aisle seat for more arm movement.
• Bring your skin lotion to keep the arm moist since pressurized cabins are very dry.
• Wear your compression sleeve on the flight and bring an extra for backup.
• Wear loose comfortable clothes.
• If your destination is high altitude, such as Denver, Colorado, bring extra short-stretch bandages.
• Avoid issues with heavy luggage. Let your traveling companions do the carrying. If you’re by yourself, have airport personnel handle it. If it’s a brief trip, bring only essentials to minimize the weight. Never hoist weighty luggage with the affected arm.
How to Prevent Arm Lymphedema from Getting Worse when Flying
You’re not powerless, whether you’re at risk for new swelling or for pre-existing swelling getting worse.
• The biggest thing you can do to make flying as comfortable as possible is to wear a compression sleeve or some type of garment that’s designed to increase the pressure within the tissues. This increase will reduce fluid retention.
• Go easy on food.
• Keep well-hydrated with water or fruit juice.
• In addition to getting up at least once every 45 minutes to walk around and move your arms about, conduct seated exercises with your arm. Your lymphedema specialist can make recommendations.
• During rest, keep the arm elevated when you can.
• Wearing a compression glove will assist in the preventive effect of the compression garment.
• For even more effectiveness, wear an additional short-stretch bandage over your sleeve.
With these above tactics, there really is no reason for the breast cancer survivor to avoid air travel just because of lymphedema in an arm.
• Keep the compression garments on through to your hotel or wherever you’ll be staying.
• Once there, rest (garments still on) and keep the arm elevated.
• Do some more exercises with the garments on.
• Follow your lymphedema therapist’s advice on when to remove the garments.
“A blood clot and infections would need to be considered if lymphedema isn’t improving or worsening upon landing, especially if edema/redness/pain/fever are developing,” says Dr. Levandovsky.
Millions of breast cancer survivors have flown. Lymphedema in the arm, when properly managed, should never stop you.
Dr. Levandovsky provides personalized care to health conscious individuals as well as cancer patients and survivors, focusing on an integration of genetic/molecular risk assessments, prevention, education, nutrition and psycho-oncology.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.