Lymphedema (pronounced lim-fe-DEE-ma) is a side effect that can begin any time after removal of the lymph nodes during breast cancer surgery. This condition involves swelling of the soft tissues of the arm or hand, and may be accompanied by numbness, pain, or a feeling of tightness. It can sometimes be complicated by infection. Lymphedema can be looked at as a plumbing problem. Lymphatic vessels are like pipes and drains that help prevent accumulation of a normally occurring tissue fluid called lymphatic fluid. If some lymph nodes and channels are removed during breast cancer surgery, there might not be enough pipes and drains to handle all of the lymphatic fluid in the arm or hand on the side where the surgery was performed. The lymphatic fluid then accumulates. Lymphedema isn't life threatening, but it can last a long period of time.
Being overweight has been associated with the development of lymphedema after breast cancer surgery. One reason that weight might contribute to lympedema is that compression from excess weight in the arm can further restrict drainage of lymphatic fluid after surgery. Researches wondered whether weight loss could help women with lymphedema. The research showed that weight loss, achieved by a reduced-calorie diet or even just a low-fat diet, tended to decrease the amount of arm swelling in women with chronic lymphedema following breast cancer surgery. The more weight lost, the more improvement seen.
In the Lymphedema section you can learn much more about why lymphedema happens, who’s at risk, the steps you can take after breast cancer surgery to lower the chances of getting lymphedema, and what you can do to control lymphedema if it develops.
This article was made possible by an educational grant from GlaxoSmithKline.