You can’t control the extent of the cancer treatments you needed to have, nor how your body responds to the changes in your lymphatic system. But there are steps you can take to reduce lymphedema risk, or increase the odds of noticing early symptoms. The best time to start your efforts is before breast cancer surgery.
We realize you may very well have had surgery and be far along in your treatment plan, or even finished with it, before you hear anything about lymphedema. Many women and their doctors are so focused on taking care of the cancer that lymphedema doesn’t get discussed in much detail. Don’t blame yourself if you’re just learning about lymphedema now. It’s not too late to take steps to reduce your risk or keep it from getting worse (if you’ve been diagnosed already).
And what if you do everything that's recommended and still get lymphedema? We can’t always explain why one woman is affected and another isn’t. “Part of what makes lymphedema so frustrating and complex is that one woman can have two lymph nodes removed and get it, while another can have 30 removed and never get it,” says Kathryn Schmitz, PhD, MPH, associate professor in the Division of Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania. “Why? We don’t fully understand that yet.”
In fact, researchers are looking into whether genetics may predispose some women to developing lymphedema. For example, one study found that in some women with breast cancer-related lymphedema of the arm, there also were changes in lymph flow in the other arm, even though it appeared normal. Another study found that women who developed lymphedema after breast cancer had a specific gene mutation that other women did not. This research is still in its early stages, but it may one day help to explain why some apparently low-risk women still get lymphedema.
In this section of Breastcancer.org, you can learn more about how to reduce lymphedema risk before and after surgery. If you develop lymphedema or already have it, the after-treatment advice still applies. These action steps can be helpful in managing the condition and preventing flare-ups, such as new episodes of achiness or swelling. (See the Lymphedema Treatments section for more information on treatment options.)