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Lymphedema After Breast Cancer Treatment

The lymphatic system is a chain of tiny vessels that travel throughout the body and a series of small organs, or lymph nodes. This network carries a clear liquid called lymph through the body. Lymph contains white blood cells as well as proteins and other substances that are picked up from the tissues and spaces in between larger organs. The lymphatic system is a supportive aspect of the immune system and is involved in the filtering and elimination of waste products from various regions of the body.

How Lymphedema Relates to Breast Cancer

Lymphedema is a condition in which the flow of lymph is disrupted and swelling results. One of the ways that this disruption can occur is by removing lymph nodes. In some cases, lymph node removal is an integral facet of cancer treatment. As a part of breast cancer treatment, radiation may be used to target some or all of the lymph nodes in the underarm area. These organs, called axillary lymph nodes, are responsible for lymph drainage from the breast, chest, neck, upper arms, and underarm. The treatment or removal of any number of the axillary lymph nodes increases a woman’s risk of lymphedema at some point after her initial cancer treatment.

Lymphedema Following Breast Cancer Treatment

There are several ways in which lymphedema may occur following breast cancer treatment:

  • Short-term lymphedema may develop a few days after surgery in which one or more lymph nodes have been removed. This type is usually mild and transient.
  • Mild to moderate lymphedema may occur 4 to 6 weeks after radiation or surgery and gradually disappear.
  • Chronic lymphedema commonly develops 18 to 24 months after surgical lymph node removal. This type of lymphedema may be painless and progressive in its development. It typically does not improve without treatment.

Managing Lymphedema Risk

A woman who has undergone breast cancer treatment that involved removal or radiation of axillary lymph nodes will always be at risk for lymphedema secondary to her procedure. This condition cannot be cured but it can be managed. For this reason, it is imperative that breast cancer survivors speak with their doctor and learn how to identify signs of lymphedema.

Keck Medical of USC provides outstanding care to manage lymphedema. Microsurgery specialist Dr. Ketan M. Patel is one of the few U.S. physicians trained to perform advanced physiological procedures that address this condition. His patients appreciate his compassion and clarity in discussing their condition, concerns, and treatment recommendations.

Learn more about lymphedema treatment. Contact us today.

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