Lymphedema is the build-up of fluid in soft tissues in the body when the lymph system is damaged or blocked. It is a common problem that may be caused by cancer or cancer treatment, such as breast surgery and radiation.
Lymphedema can occur after any cancer or 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. Lymphedema may occur in breast cancer patients who had all or part of their breast removed and axillary (underarm) lymph nodes removed.
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 neck, chest, underarm.
- Scar tissue in the lymph ducts under the collarbones, caused by surgery or radiation therapy.
Possible signs of lymphedema include swelling of the arms; however, other conditions may cause the same symptoms. These symptoms may occur very slowly over time or more quickly if there is an infection or injury to the arm.
A doctor should be consulted 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.
- Trouble moving the arm or hand.
- Thickening of the skin.
- A feeling of tightness when wearing clothing, shoes, bracelets, watches, or rings.
Patients can take steps to prevent lymphedema or keep it from getting worse.
- Tell your health care provider right away if you notice symptoms of lymphedema.
- Keep skin and nails clean and cared for, to prevent infection.
- Wear only loose jewelry and clothes without tight bands or elastic.
- Do not carry handbags on the arm with lymphedema.
- Do not use a blood pressure cuff on the arm with lymphedema.
- Do not have blood work drawn from the affected arm.
- Maintain a healthy weight by managing your diet and getting regular exercise.
Lymphedema can be treated.
The goal of treatment is to control the swelling and other problems caused by lymphedema. Treatment of lymphedema may include wearing compression garments, exercise, bandages, complete decongestive therapy, and weight loss.
Supplies for Lymphedema
If you are diagnosed with lymphedema, supplies can be purchased from the following vendors: