Lymphedema is the swelling of the soft tissues caused by a build-up of lymph fluid. Depending on the type of surgery and other treatments a person has, it’s possible for lymphedema to occur in the arm, hand, breast, trunk, or abdomen. The swelling can be accompanied by pain, tightness, numbness, and sometimes infection.
Lymphedema can happen days, months, or years following breast cancer treatment and can be temporary or ongoing. It usually develops gradually over time and the swelling can be mild, moderate, or severe.
Because lymphedema can be misdiagnosed or overlooked in mild cases, it's difficult to know exactly how many women are affected. Experts estimate that from 5% to 40% of women will experience some level of lymphedema after breast cancer surgery. Your risk may be higher than this 5-40% range if you:
- have a full axillary lymph node dissection (lymph nodes above, below, and underneath the pectoralis minor muscle -- known as levels I–III -- are removed)
- have radiation to the lymph node areas after lymph node surgery
- have extensive cancer in the lymph nodes
- have chemotherapy
- choose mastectomy rather than lumpectomy
- are obese
- smoke heavily
- have diabetes
- have had surgery in the armpit area before now
Having sentinel lymph node dissection instead of axillary lymph node dissection can lower the risk of lymphedema, but there is still some risk. Research shows that between 3.7% and 17% of women will experience lymphedema after sentinel lymph node dissection.
You can learn about how to minimize and manage lymphedema in our section on Arm Lymphedema.