Depending on the extent of your cancer, the surgeon may remove some or all of the lymph nodes near the breast, either to test them for the presence of disease or because they’re already known to be cancerous.

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Listen to physical therapist Karen Gilbert of Cancer Treatment Centers of America explain what causes lymphedema and how it’s treated.

When lymph nodes are taken out, it can change, block, or interrupt the flow of fluid through the lymphatic system. When excess lymphatic fluid collects in your tissues, it can cause swelling on the side of the body where the nodes were taken out, particularly in the arm and hand. This swelling is called lymphedema. While it is most often associated with breast cancer surgery, lymphedema may be caused by any treatment or condition that interferes with lymphatic drainage or causes swelling, and may even be a symptom of cancer itself. Lymphedema can develop immediately after surgery, or it may arise several weeks, months, or even years after treatment ends, so it’s important to know what to look for.

Words to Know

Your lymphatic system is the network of nodes, tissues, vessels, and fluid that helps the body to cleanse itself of bacteria and other harmful substances.

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Preventing lymphedema

In some cases, your doctors may be able to reduce your chances of developing lymphedema or prevent it altogether by performing a sentinel lymph node biopsy prior to your surgery. This simple diagnostic procedure allows the surgeon to determine which lymph nodes need to be removed to reduce the risk of the cancer spreading, while hopefully preserving the remaining lymph nodes under the arm.

Warning signs of infection

If some of your lymph nodes are removed as part of your treatment, it’s important to discuss any swelling you experience with your doctor. That’s because proteins in the lymph fluid can collect in your tissues and quickly lead to infection or even blood clots. These are of particular concern when you have cancer, since your immune system may be compromised by treatment, or by the cancer itself. Symptoms of infection to watch out for include:

  • Fever of over 100 degrees
  • Chills
  • Redness or rash
  • Pain or tenderness
  • A sensation of warmth or heat in the limb

Treating lymphedema

If you’re experiencing lymphedema or you’re at risk for developing it, your physical therapist or other rehabilitation specialist may employ one of the following techniques:

  • Lymph drainage therapy is a specialized massage technique designed to activate your lymphatic system and prevent fluid build-up.
  • Take Note

    It’s important that any compression garments you use be properly fitted by your healthcare provider.

  • Le duc manual lymph drainage combines manual therapy, multi-layer bandaging, and a compression pump to activate your lymphatic system and clear excess lymph fluids from your body.

Your physical therapist may also recommend the following at-home treatments for lymphedema:

  • Skincare, including gentle, non-irritating lotions and cleansers
  • Gentle massage to encourage drainage
  • Light exercises designed to stimulate the lymphatic system
  • Compression bandages or garments fitted by your healthcare provider, such as sleeves or stockings, to prevent additional fluid from accumulating
  • Medications to reduce inflammation, prevent blood clots, and treat infections

Managing lymphedema

The following tips may help you manage lymphedema or prevent it from occurring:

  • Keep the affected arm above the level of the heart when possible
  • Avoid stretching, pulling, or holding your arm over your head for extended periods of time
  • Protect the affected area from scratches, sores, burns, insect bites, or other irritations or injuries
  • Avoid exposure to extremes of cold or heat, which can be associated with increased fluid build-up, swelling, and skin irritation
  • Avoid muscle strain, vigorous activity, repetitive movements, or heavy lifting
  • If possible, try to avoid having your blood pressure taken, blood drawn, or injections given on the affected side
  • Try to maintain a healthy weight, since being overweight can increase the chances of swelling
  • Avoid foods high in salt and fat
  • Wear comfortable clothing, shoes, and undergarments that don’t bind the skin
  • Wear loose watches, jewelry, and gloves

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