LYMPHEDEMA AFTER BREAST CANCER
One of the most common types of cancer affecting women today is breast cancer. About one in eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. During surgery to treat the cancer, lymph nodes are often removed, which can disrupt the flow of lymph and cause swelling. The lymph nodes may also be treated with radiation which can cause damage to the lymphatic system. This does not always occur after surgery or radiation, as sometimes it appears months or even years later. As a result, it’s common for breast cancer patients to develop lymphedema. It’s important to know of your risk factor for this condition, as well as ways that can reduce your risk.
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF GETTING LYMPHEDEMA?
There is no way to know for sure what your chances are of developing lymphedema. However, the good news is that researchers and healthcare professionals are continually developing new and better surgical treatments. Therefore, the chances of lymphedema today are greatly reduced. Most people do not get lymphedema since modern surgery removes fewer axillary lymph nodes than in the past. The more nodes removed the greater the risk. Axillary node dissection, which removes more lymph nodes, gives you a higher chance of developing lymphedema. Sentinel lymph node biopsy, which removes only a few lymph nodes to check for cancer, gives you less than a 5% chance of developing lymphedema. When lymph nodes are removed, you will always be at higher risk for lymphedema.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF LYMPHEDEMA
The main symptom of lymphedema after breast cancer is swelling in the arm on the affected side. The amount of swelling can vary. A feeling of fullness, heaviness, or tightness in the arm, armpit or chest may also occur. Clothing or jewelry that feels tight or doesn’t fit may also indicate the development of lymphedema. Do you have trouble bending or moving your joints? Does your arm feel weak or heavy? Do you have aching or pain in your arm that was not there before? These are all signs to look for when you are at risk for lymphedema. If you do notice any of these conditions, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. The sooner lymphedema is diagnosed and treated, the easier it is to manage.
REDUCING YOUR RISK OF LYMPHEDEMA AFTER BREAST CANCER
Although there is no proven way to prevent lymphedema, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk after breast cancer. First of all, it’s important to be aware of the risk and seek care if you notice any signs or symptoms.
You can also take care to maintain a healthy body weight and eat a low-sodium diet. Take steps to reduce the risk of infection or injury that can trigger lymphedema, especially to affected areas, such as by keeping your skin clean and well moisturized. Do not use an at-risk arm for blood draws, get injections or have your blood pressure taken. Avoid wearing tight or restrictive clothing or jewelry. Always seek medical attention at the first sign of infection, such as redness, fever, pain, or increased swelling.
Talk with your healthcare provider about other ways to help prevent lymphedema. Make these precautions a part of your life. Compare your hands and arms on a regular basis. Learn what is normal for you so that if you see changes you can seek medical help as soon as possible.
BE AWARE – KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
There is no way to know whether or not you will develop lymphedema after breast cancer, but early detection is key to the treatment and management of lymphedema. Be aware, knowledge is power and self care is essential.
Dr. Marisa Weiss, chief medical officer and founder of Breastcancer.org says, “I can say from experience that the time right after diagnosis, when you are considering options and planning treatment, is a blur. When you are feeling so anxious and overwhelmed, it is hard to listen, understand, and decide. So even if lymphedema gets mentioned during this time, you may not remember it. Or it may not come up because the focus is really on getting you well. So if lymphedema does develop later on, it can feel like yet another insult to the body, one that many women weren’t fully prepared for. The good news is that women can learn how to manage it and lead normal lives.“
Disclaimer – This blog is for general information purposes only. Furthermore, information contained in this blog is not a substitute for medical advice. Always consult a licensed healthcare professional for advice on your specific condition.