Lymphedema is the build-up of fluid in soft body tissues when the lymph system is damaged or blocked.
Lymphedema occurs when fluid builds up in soft body tissues and causes swelling. It may be caused by breast cancer treatment and usually affects an arm. Lymphedema can cause long-term physical, psychological, and social problems for patients.
Possible signs of lymphedema secondary to breast cancer treatment include swelling of an arm or arms. Call your doctor or health care provider right away if any of the following problems occur:
- Swelling of an arm, which may include fingers.
- A full or heavy feeling in an arm.
- A tight feeling in the skin of the arm.
- Trouble moving a joint in the arm.
- Thickening of the arm skin, with or without skin changes such as blisters or warts.
- A feeling of tightness when wearing sleeves, bracelets, watches, or rings.
Breast cancer and its treatment are risk factors for lymphedema. Lymphedema can occur after breast cancer treatment that affects the flow of lymph through the lymph nodes, such as removal of lymph nodes. It may develop within days or many years after treatment. Most lymphedema develops within three years of surgery. Risk factors for lymphedema include the following:
- Removal and/or radiation of lymph nodes in the underarm. The risk of lymphedema increases with the number of lymph nodes affected. There is less risk with the removal of only the sentinel lymph node (the first lymph node to receive lymphatic drainage from a tumor).
- Being overweight or obese.
- Slow healing of the skin after surgery.
- A tumor that affects or blocks the left lymph duct or lymph nodes or vessels in the chest or underarm.
- Scar tissue in the lymph ducts under the collarbones, caused by surgery or radiation therapy.
Lymphedema often occurs in breast cancer patients who had all or part of their breast removed and axillary (underarm) lymph nodes removed.
Patients can take steps to prevent lymphedema or keep it from getting worse. Taking preventive steps may keep lymphedema from developing. Health care providers can teach patients how to prevent and take care of lymphedema at home.
The National Lymphedema Network is an organization of professionals and patients dedicated to prevention, education and resources for lymphedema treatment.
Tell your health care provider right away if you notice symptoms of lymphedema. For more information, read the National Cancer Institute's latest summary of published information on lymphedema.
Source: Most of the above text is reproduced from the National Cancer Institute's website, www.cancer.gov.