Lymphedema and Breast Cancer Survival
Lymphedema is swelling in the hands, arms, back, legs due to problems with the lymphatic vascular system. This condition occurs frequently in breast cancer survivors who have had full or partial removal of certain lymph nodes. The lymphatic system is a vascular system, like veins and arteries, that runs throughout the entire body carrying fluid, cells, and other material. A lymph node is like a hub for these vessels. If it is removed, the vessels can become blocked causing swelling in the body.
Having breast cancer or having had breast cancer does not mean you will get lymphedema but if your lymph nodes were removed for that or any medical reason, it does put you at risk. There are no definite reasons why some people get lymphedema and others do not, but there are certain factors that increase risk:
- Removal of a large number of lymph nodes during breast cancer surgery
- Multiple lymph nodes containing cancer
- Radiation of the lymph nodes
- Being overweight
- Post-surgical infections
On average, lymphedema occurs three years after surgery if the lymphatic system has been affected.
Call your doctor immediately if you have had lymphatic surgery and you notice the following symptoms:
- Swelling in the arms, hands, legs, or back
- Feeling of tightness, heaviness or fullness in the arms, hands, legs, or back
- Feeling of tightness in the skin or a thickening of the skin
- Pain or redness in the arm or hand
- Tight fit of rings, watches or bracelets beyond the normal end of day swelling
- Sleep problems due to skin or body discomfort
There is no current cure for lymphedema, but there are effective treatments available usually using compression garments, motorized air sleeves, exercises designed for lymphatic draining, specialized massage, and liposuction, among other treatments. Our understanding of lymphedema, just like in breast cancer, is growing all the time. There are many support groups, chat rooms, and loads of information on the web for any questions you may have. We have a special Lymphedema Care section full of products to help.