Lymphedema

Solutions to help you return to daily activities

Lymphedema can be a painful and frustrating side effect of breast cancer treatment. Too often patient suffer in silence and have few treatment options at their disposal.

While there’s no cure for lymphedema, our surgeons and certified lymphedema therapists can offer solutions to help you return to daily activities with less discomfort.

  • What is lymphedema?

    Lymphedema is a build-up of lymph fluid in the fatty tissue just under the skin. The condition results in swelling, usually in the arms and legs. It can occur when lymph nodes are removed or damaged during breast surgery or radiation treatment. Lymphedema prevents fluid from draining properly, which can cause discomfort, limited movement, and infections that return over and over again.

    Lymphedema symptoms can begin months or even years after treatment. If you’ve had breast surgery or treatment, periodically examine your body in the mirror. If you notice changes in size, shape, or skin color of your arms or legs, seek treatment right away.

    Signs and symptoms to watch for include:

    • Aching, tingling, or discomfort
    • Clothes and jewelry not fitting properly (pant legs, shirt sleeves, watches, or rings)
    • Feeling full or heavy in the arms or legs
    • Restricted movement or flexibility
    • Swelling in the chest, arms, or legs
    • Texture or color changes in the skin (feeling hard or looking red)

    Our breast cancer surgeons seek the least invasive treatment option to eliminate cancer -- and decrease uncomfortable side effects when possible. This includes procedures such as sentinel node biopsy. Surgeons remove fewer lymph nodes with this approach, which reduces the risk of lymphedema.

  • Other lymphedema treatments

    With proper lymphedema management, you can reduce swelling and control pain.

    Options that can help you manage the condition include:

    • Compression garments: These are fitted sleeves that can prevent and reduce swelling by moving lymph fluid from the arm or leg back into the body. Talk with your lymphedema therapist about proper fitting and when to wear them.
    • Exercise: Using your muscles encourages lymph fluid drainage. Work with a health professional to design an exercise plan.
    • Lymphatic massage: Performed by a certified lymphedema therapist specially trained in the technique, therapeutic massage can encourage lymph fluid to flow out of the arm or leg.
  • Reduce your lymphedema risk

    It’s unclear whether lymphedema is preventable. But there are steps you can take to lower your risk and reduce its impact.

    Your body sends extra fluid and white blood cells throughout the body to fight infection. If lymph nodes are missing, it’s more difficult for the body to move this fluid.

    Follow these hygiene and skin care tips to avoid infection:

    • When you need a vaccination, blood drawn, or an IV inserted, use the unaffected arm if possible. Tell the provider that you’re at risk for lymphedema.
    • Use moisturizer to avoid cracked skin, especially in the winter.
    • Wear protectives gloves with sleeves when doing yard work or household chores that require harsh chemicals or steel wool. Use a thimble when you sew.
    • Clean and protect cuts, scratches, insect bites, hangnails, or torn cuticles.
    • Use a clean razor when you shave.

    Other ways to lower your lymphedema risk:

    • Get regular medical check-ups. Report changes in size, color, or skin condition of the affected limb to your cancer care team.
    • Maintain a healthy weight. Obese women are at higher risk for lymphedema.
    • Watch for cellulitis. This is an infection in the tissues just under the skin that can lead lymphedema or make it worse. Signs of cellulitis include redness, warmth, pain, fever, or flu-like symptoms. In some cases, you may need antibiotics to control it.
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