Weight Loss May Reduce Lymphedema Risk

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With arm lymphedema, the soft tissues of the arm or hand swell. Lymphedema can develop after breast cancer surgery. Numbness, discomfort, and, at times, infection can happen along with the swelling. Lymphedema isn't life threatening, but it can be annoying and can last for a while.

Research has shown that being overweight or obese increases a woman's risk of developing lymphedema after breast cancer surgery. A study showed that overweight or obese women with lymphedema who lost weight significantly reduced their arm swelling. The women lost an average of about 7 pounds over 12 weeks, and their arm size went from 25% larger than normal to 15% larger than normal. Women in the study who didn't lose weight didn't have any change in their arm size.

If some of your underarm lymph nodes are removed during mastectomy or lumpectomy, you might develop some lymphedema. Still, it's good to know that only about 5% to 10% of women treated for breast cancer develop lymphedema during or after treatment. Your risk of lymphedema may be higher if you have:

  • more extensive surgery
  • radiation therapy to underarm lymph nodes
  • chemotherapy

If you have lymphedema and are overweight, you might want to think about losing weight to ease your arm swelling. Talk to your doctor about setting up a weight loss plan that includes a healthy diet and exercise.

You can learn more about lymphedema and ways to manage it in the Breastcancer.org Lymphedema section.

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