Home | How Common Is Lymphedema After Breast Cancer Treatment?

How Common Is Lymphedema After Breast Cancer Treatment?

iStock 958891762 1 As if there wasn’t enough to think about when facing a breast cancer diagnosis, patients also face the potential for a post-treatment condition known as lymphedema. Hearing this only incites more questions from patients. One of them has to do with how likely it is that they might develop chronic and uncomfortable swelling. We’ll discuss that here.

Breast cancer surgery may involve the removal of a lump (lumpectomy) or all breast tissue (mastectomy). It may also involve the removal of some of the lymph nodes under the arm. These are referred to as axillary lymph nodes. The reason a doctor might remove them is to check them for cancer cells. Alternatively, the axillary lymph nodes may be affected if treated with radiation therapy. In these cases, there is a potential for future blockage that prevents lymph fluid from properly draining from the axillary (underarm) area. Without proper drainage, lymph builds up in the arm (or finger, hand, back, or chest), causing swelling (edema). For some patients, swelling is mild. For others, it is severe and physically disfiguring. Lymphedema can be a frustrating problem, but it is treatable.

Today, far fewer women develop lymphedema than previously. This is because modern surgical techniques involve more conservative treatment of the axillary lymph nodes. Women who do develop lymphedema most often see less severe symptoms, as well. Historically, breast cancer patients nearly always also underwent axillary dissection to remove lymph nodes under the arm. Now, it is much more common for a doctor to perform sentinel node biopsy. This removes fewer lymph nodes so has a three- to four-times lower chance of causing lymph blockage or backup. In one study, fewer than 5% of women who had sentinel node biopsy developed lymphedema in the year following treatment. This is compared to 10 to 20 percent of those who had axillary dissection. If lymphedema occurs, it usually does so within three years of breast cancer treatment. However, it can occur much later. A woman’s choice of breast reconstruction does not appear to increase her risk of lymphedema.

Signs of lymphedema include swelling and sensations of uncomfortable fullness, heaviness, or tightness. The skin may thicken or become red. Women who experience these symptoms should contact their doctor to discuss ways to manage or treat lymphedema. Dr. Patel is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who specializes in complex reconstructive surgery, microsurgery, and peripheral nerve surgery. He has dedicated his professional career to rebuilding and restoring the body after cancer, trauma, and disease. To schedule a consultation at our Glendale or Los Angeles location, contact us at 323.442.0416.

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