Lymph is a colourless fluid formed in the body and drains into the blood through a network of vessels and lymph nodes. Swelling because of overloading of the surrounding tissues with lymph fluid is called lymphedema.

Why is lymphedema associated with breast cancer?

Cancer cells travel through the body through the lymph nodes. During surgery these nodes are tested for malignancy and if positive theneither some or all of the remaining nodes are removed. The surgical removal of these nodes causes an obstruction to the natural flow of lymph resulting in swelling in the arm. Radiation to the armpit is another risk factor in the development of lymphedema.

Swelling and “odd sensations” soon after surgery are not lymphedema.After surgery, it is normal for there to be some numbness in the armpit, upper arm and the breast or chest wall and there is often some swelling. As the nerves begin to repair, it is also normal to experience a number of odd and uncomfortable sensations, often described as tingling. These sensations can occur in the breast or chest wall, armpit, upper arm and upper back. The swelling and odd sensations usually settle down during the weeks or months after surgery.

Recognizing lymphedema?

Lymphedema can occur at any time after surgery - even many years later. Knowing the signs and symptoms allows you to take control of it and manage it at its onset with better results.

Early symptoms of lymphedema are:

Swelling of the arm, breast or hand.

Feelings of discomfort, heaviness, tightness or fullness in the arm or breast.

Aching, pain or tension in the arm, shoulder, hand, chest or breast area.

What can trigger lymphedema?
You can reduce the risk of developing lymphedema by:
How is lymphoedema managed?

There is no known cure for lymphoedema but there are ways to manage

  1. a) Good skin care,
  2. b) Gentle exercise,
  3. c) Lymphatic drainage massage
  4. d) Use of compression garments on the affected arm.

These treatments help reduce and/or control swelling, improve the range of movement of the affected area and prevent infections.

Things to remember
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