What is Lymphedema?

What is Lymphedema?

Learn the causes, symptoms and management of this condition common after lymph node removal

It is common for women to have some or all lymph nodes under the arm removed when they have breast cancer. This is done to assess whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body and to reduce the risk of future recurrence or metastases. Despite these very good reasons for removing lymph nodes, this procedure can open the door to another condition that you may need to address—lymphedema.

What are lymph nodes?

Before we get into details about lymphedema, it can be helpful to be clear about the job of the lymph nodes and how their removal can lead to lymphedema.

Part of the lymphatic system, the lymph nodes filter substances that move through your body via the lymphatic fluid. This fluid carries white blood cells, called lymphocytes, to help your body fight disease and infection. Upon removal of the lymph nodes, the flow of white blood cells from the nodes to the rest of the body is disrupted, which may result in swelling in the immediate or nearby areas. This swelling is called lymphedema.

How severe can lymphedema be?

Lymphedema may be mild, moderate or severe. Mild lymphedema may appear shortly after surgery and last for a relatively short time. Moderate lymphedema may appear four to six weeks after surgery or radiation. It can last longer than mild cases but can resolve over time. Severe lymphedema may not be evident for some time after surgery or radiation but can be chronic, requiring ongoing management.

What are symptoms of lymphedema?

As with any form of edema, lymphedema’s primary symptom is swelling. It is important to note, however, that this swelling can appear across many parts of your body. It may be in or near the arm and armpit from which the nodes were removed, in the hands, neck, torso and even the legs.

In addition to swelling, you may experience any combination of the following symptoms:

  • Weak feeling in your arm
  • Difficulty moving your shoulder, elbow, wrist or fingers
  • Pain or aches through your arm
  • A tight or full feeling through your armpit, arm or chest
  • Skin tightening or thickening

It is important to note that not everyone has the same symptoms or combination of symptoms so knowing what is normal for you will help you notice changes that you may want to discuss with your doctor.

How do I manage lymphedema?

There are many things you can do to manage lymphedema after lymph node removal, including:

  • Eating healthy foods
  • Drinking enough water to avoid dehydration
  • Getting regular exercise as appropriate
  • Preventing infection by keeping the areas clean
  • Massage therapy
  • Wear medical-grade compression garments

When it comes to compression garments, there are medical-grade and non-medical grade versions. The latter can be purchased easily online or at drug stores, but they only offer a limited level of compression therapy and may not be sufficient to alleviate the symptoms of lymphedema.

Medical-grade compression wear can be prescribed by your doctor at a level appropriate to your degree and type of lymphedema. This is the best way to get the right therapy and support you need.

As with any experience or side effect related to your breast cancer, it is important to make sure you keep your doctor informed so you can get the help you need at every step of the way.

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