While there is no cure for lymphedema, there are very effective treatments and support you can find for your symptoms. We’re sharing everything you need to know about the links between lymphedema and breast cancer, and reviewing some potential symptoms of lymphedema after breast cancer.
The word edema is a medical word which means swelling, and swelling caused by excess lymph fluid is called lymphedema. Lymphedema can occur after a surgery is performed in an area containing lymph nodes, such as under the arms, and will only affect the treated body side. Early identification and proper treatment can help prevent the condition from progressing , resulting in an improved quality of life for breast cancer patients living with lymphedema.
Up to 40% of women treated for breast cancer will develop lymphedema. Breast cancer surgery requires the removal of the axillary lymph nodes located under the arm. A side-effect of breast cancer and/or radiation therapy is an abnormal swelling of the lymph nodes, also known as lymphedema.
According to a study at the American College of Surgeons, about 90% of women who develop lymphedema do so within three years of receiving breast cancer treatment.
There are many signs and symptoms to look for concerning lymphedema resulting from breast cancer and or radiation therapy, which include the following:
Lymphedema is caused by impairment of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system rids the body of waste products as well as fighting infections. This intricate system consists of lymph nodes and lymph vessels.
Lymphedema occurs when the lymph vessels are unable to drain the lymph fluid adequately. Lymphedema can be caused by either a primary source when it happens on its own, or secondary when caused by another disease or condition, such as lymphedema in breast cancer patients.
Primary lymphedema is also known as congenital lymphedema, and is evident at birth or shortly after puberty. This type is rare and generally affects 1 in every 6,000 people.
Secondary lymphedema is far more common, and the causes include:
Over time, if poorly treated, lymphedema can result in several complications, including pain, infections, disability, and in some cases, even death.
After breast cancer treatment, the risk for lymphedema goes up. Secondary factors can also contribute to an increased likelihood of lymphedema. These secondary factors include:
When undergoing breast cancer treatment, it’s important to check with your doctor whether your lymph nodes will be involved.
If radiation treatment is needed, ask if the radiation will be pointed at any areas that involve the lymph nodes or lymphatic vessels.
In your healing journey as a breast cancer patient, there are things you can do to prevent lymphedema from progressing.
There are ways to reduce swelling and control the painful symptoms of lymphedema after breast cancer.
There are definite links between breast cancer and lymphedema. But, even though there is no cure for lymphedema, there are things you can do to reduce your risk and effectively manage your symptoms.
The links between breast cancer and lymphedema do not have to bind your life. Being aware and taking the necessary precautions can help you reduce discomfort and live a healthy, inspired life.