October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and many do not know that lymphedema is a possible side effect of breast cancer treatment.
Lymphedema occurs when lymph fluid (white blood cells) collects in the arm (or other areas like the hand, fingers, chest/breast, or back,) causing swelling (edema) to occur. Lymphedema can cause pain and even limit movement. But what does this have to do with breast cancer, you may be asking?
During breast cancer surgery, some of the lymph nodes in the underarm (called axillary lymph nodes) may be removed to see if they contain cancer cells. When these are removed, some of the lymph vessels can become blocked, which can prevent the lymph fluid from moving.
Lymphedema usually develops within 3 years of breast surgery, although it is possible for it to still occur years after treatment ends.1 Today, most people have sentinel node biopsy, which removes fewer lymph nodes. Women who have this form are about 3-4 times less likely to develop lymphedema than those who have an axillary dissection.2
Lymphedema is a debilitating disease that can be managed with early recognition of the signs and symptoms. When caught early, treatment can reduce further symptoms from occurring or stop them from worsening.
So, what are the signs and symptoms:
- Swelling in the arm or hand
- Feeling of tightness or heaviness in the arm or hand
- Feeling of tightness in the skin or a thickening of the skin
- Pain or redness in the arm or hand.
It is important that you become your own advocate and monitor your symptoms and any changes you see happening with your body so that you can inform your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider will check for lymphedema by measuring your upper and lower arm widths. Monitoring for lymphedema within the first 3 months after surgery may lead to an early diagnosis.
Treatments for lymphedema can help reduce pain and swelling in the affected arm or limb. This can include:
- Skin & Nail care
- Compression bandages or sleeves
- Manual lymphatic drainage
- Physical Therapy
In a recent study published in May of 2019 in the Annals of Surgical Oncology, the early use of screening surveillance from Bioimpedance and the use of compression garments is an effective tool in lymphedema prevention. The use of mediven® harmony arm sleeves and gauntlets assisted in the progression of subclinical lymphedema in the largest randomized controlled trial focused on lymphedema prevention.
While there is no way to completely prevent lymphedema from occurring, it’s best to be aware that lymphedema is a possible side effect of breast cancer treatment and to seek care when you first notice signs or symptoms. It is best to take early steps to reduce your risk of injury and infection.
- National Cancer Institute. Lymphedema – health professional version. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/lymphedema/lymphedema-hp-pdq, 2019.
- DiSipio T, Rye S, Newman B, Hayes S. Incidence of unilateral arm lymphoedema after breast cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Oncol. 14(6):500-15, 2013.