Home | Common Questions about Lymphedema Breast Cancer Patients are Asking

Common Questions about Lymphedema Breast Cancer Patients are Asking

istock 181052903 1 Women diagnosed with breast cancer naturally have many questions swirling around their minds. They’re thinking about treatment options, side effects, and ongoing care. They’re not thinking about lymphedema. This condition, in which fluid accumulates in the chest wall, the breast, or the arm, can develop due to a disruption in lymph drainage. Lymph is the fluid that bathes tissues and aids in detoxification. A buildup of fluid can be problematic. Here, we discuss some of the questions breast cancer patients are asking once they learn about the potential for lymphedema to occur. 

Who Is at Risk for Lymphedema?

  • Patients whose breast cancer treatment includes axillary lymph node surgery. This may be performed to examine or remove one or more lymph nodes. With biopsy alone, the risk is 1 to 2 percent. The risk is 10 to 30 percent when the lymph node is dissected and also treated with radiation. Lymphedema can occur immediately or years after treatment, though the risk is most significant in the 3 years that follow surgery. 
  • Patients who undergo radiation therapy to the axillary lymph nodes.
  • Patients who are treated with Taxane-based chemotherapy such as docetaxel or paclitaxel.
  • Patients who undergo multiple breast surgery or develop symptomatic seromas.
  • Obesting, poor shoulder range of motion, a sedentary lifestyle, and smoking are modifiable habits that contribute to lymphedema risk. 

Can I Reduce my Risk of Lymphedema?

Research indicates that the following strategies may decrease at-risk patients’ chances of getting lymphedema.

  • Wear SPF 30 sunscreen daily.
  • Maintain clean, moisturized skin and nails to prevent skin cracks.
  • Exercise to support good mobility and strength. This improves lymph flow. 
  • Maintain good posture to support lymph flow.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Contact the treating oncologist right away if swelling, tightness, heaviness, or pain occur in an arm, the chest, or the breast.

Do I Need to Wear a Compression Garment?

It is not necessary to wear compression unless there are active signs of lymphedema. Patients who are starting an exercise program are advised to start slowly after surgery to keep the risk of lymphedema low. For the first few months after surgery, it is wise to take all physical activity relatively slowly and to increase frequency and intensity gradually.

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