Change Type Size Print Friendly Page Email Page

Lymphedema

Lymphedema and breast cancer

Often during a lumpectomy or mastectomy, some or all of the lymph nodes under the arm may be removed, which can lead to a condition called lymphedema. Normally, lymph nodes filter fluid as it flows through them, trapping bacteria, viruses and other foreign substances, which are then destroyed by special white blood cells called lymphocytes. Without normal lymph drainage, fluid can build up in the affected arm or leg and lymphedema can develop.

Women who have been treated for breast cancer may be at risk for arm, breast, and chest swelling. Most women who have had breast cancer will not develop this side effect, but many will. The risk of lymphedema is higher for women who have surgery and radiation therapy to treat breast cancer.

Causes of Lymphedema

  • It may be caused by surgery to remove lymph nodes, medications such as tamoxifen (Nolvadex), radiation therapy, injury to the lymph nodes or if you get an infection or injury in the affected body part
  • Anyone who has been treated for cancer with surgery and/or radiation may be at-risk
  • It can develop shortly after surgery, months or even years later

Signs and Symptoms of Lymphedema can include:

  • Fullness under the arm
  • Arm or leg feels full or heavy
  • Skin of the arm or leg feels tight
  • Less movement or flexibility in the hand, wrist or ankle
  • Difficulty fitting the arm or leg into clothing
  • Tight fitting jewelry, when you have not gained weight

Call your doctor:

  • If you notice any swelling, with or without pain that lasts longer than one week
  • If any part of your affected limb or underarm feels hot, is red, or has sudden swelling
  • If you develop a temperature over 100.5°F that is not related to the cold or flu
  • These symptoms could signal an infection and may require antibiotics. A rash or itching could also signal an infection.

Treatments

Comprehensive, individualized treatment program based on the Complex Decongestive Therapy that includes:

  • Education on lymphedema prevention and precautions
  • Education on the lymphatic system
  • Skin care and diet
  • Manual lymphatic drainage
  • Compression bandaging
  • Compression garments
  • Instructions in self-manual lymphatic drainage and self-bandaging
  • Individualized exercise programs, as needed

Lymphedema support and educational services:

  • Physical Rehabilitation at the Wellness Center: 847.618.3700. Press 1* then press 5 for Occupational Therapy
  • Oncology Social Worker 847.618.6914
  • Breast Health Navigator 847.618.7431
  • A special lymphedema networking group that focuses on education and support is offered throughout the year
  • Learn more at the American Cancer Society website

Find out how NCH can help you prevent or treat lymphedema. Find a specialist now, or call 847.618.4YOU (4968) for a free referral.

Back To Top
Last modified: 10/01/2013