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On this page you will find educational information about Breast Cancer-related Lymphedema, a condition where swelling caused by fluid collects in the tissues under the skin.
Patients who have undergone surgery or radiation therapy for breast cancer have greater risk of developing a form of swelling called lymphedema, a lymphatic system disease.
The lymphatic system collects extra fluid, as well as proteins and other substances, from the body's tissues. This fluid is known as lymph. If the flow of lymph in the body is blocked, fluid can collect in the fatty tissues under the skin. The resulting swelling is lymphedema.
Lymphedema can develop weeks, months or years after cancer treatment, preventing the lymphatic system from doing its job. The condition can occur anywhere in the area of body that was treated. Breast cancer-related lymphedema can occur in the breast, chest wall, arm and/or hand.
Possible early signs of breast cancer-related lymphedema include:
Please note: Lymphedema symptoms may look similar to those associated with other medical conditions. Call your treatment team if you have any of these symptoms.
Your treatment team will screen you for lymphedema before you start breast cancer radiation or surgery. This is so treatment can be started right away if you do develop lymphedema.
The team will begin the screening process by measuring the size and volume of your arms. Further measurements to monitor for signs of swelling are then taken during visits after surgery. Follow-up measurements should be taken every three to seven months. This is because breast cancer patients are at lifelong risk for developing lymphedema.
At Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, a diagnosis of breast cancer-related lymphedema is made through a physical examination. During the exam, your doctor can look for signs of lymphedema, particularly lumps that could be swelling.
Following a diagnosis of breast cancer-related lymphedema, your care team will work with you to develop an individualized treatment plan that takes into account your:
While there is no cure for lymphedema, treatment can help minimize the burden you experience. In most cases, treatment focuses on physical therapy rather than medication. In working with a trained lymphedema therapist, you can learn to massage your arm, do helpful exercises and bandage your arm, if needed. Wearing a compression glove or sleeve during the day or at night may also be a treatment option.
Through early detection and the proper treatment plan, many lymphedema patients are able to maintain their daily lifestyle.
Click here to learn more about lymphedema treatment
The National Cancer Institute has more information on breast cancer and lymphedema.
Breast cancer-related lymphedema cannot be prevented. However, you can reduce your risk of developing this condition through safely controlled exercise, maintaining an ideal weight and good skin care.
Taking steps like these can help guard against skin infections:
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