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Breast Cancer Side Effects: Lymphedema


Because breast cancer can impact the lymph system, some cancer survivors also face the challenges of lymphedema, the buildup of fluid in soft body tissues. It occurs when cancer and cancer treatments damage or block the lymph system.

Characteristics of Lymphedema

For women with breast cancer, lymphedema usually occurs in the arm. Lymphedema can develop within a few days or even a few years after breast cancer treatment. Symptoms include:

  • Skin puffiness or swelling
  • Smoother skin
  • Less pronounced knuckles, veins and tendons in the affected area

Some conditions increase your risk of lymphedema, like:

  • Slow healing of the skin after surgery or infection
  • A tumor that blocks the lymph duct or lymph nodes or vessels in the neck, chest, underarm, pelvis or abdomen
  • Scar tissue in the lymph ducts under the collarbones caused by surgery or radiation therapy
  • Removal or radiation of lymph nodes in the underarm

Your risk of lymphedema increases with the number of lymph nodes affected or removed by treatment. For example, if surgery only removes the sentinel lymph node (the first lymph node to receive lymphatic drainage from a tumor), you have less risk of lymphedema.

Managing Lymphedema

Lymphedema is challenging physically, psychologically and socially, but you can take some important steps to manage its effects.

Be proactive with these tips:

  • Talk to your healthcare team about your concerns and any symptoms you experience.
  • Consult a physical therapist who specializes in lymphedema prevention and management. This expert advice can help you confidently address your symptoms, give you exercises to do and make recommendations for appropriate compression garments.
  • Join the National Lymphedema Network for research updates and additional information that might tell you how to better manage or treat this condition.
  • Exercise. Studies show that slow, carefully controlled exercise, like swimming, stretching and lifting light weights, is safe and may even help you prevent lymphedema.

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