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Breast Cancer and Lymphedema

cancer survivor sitting in a chair smiling with a head scarf

According to breastcancer.org, there are more than 200,000 new cases of breast cancer per year, which means about 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. Breast cancer is caused by a genetic abnormality and refers to a malignant tumor that has developed from the breast cells. As part of the treatment for breast cancer, many people require surgery during which 1-3 lymph nodes are removed, most frequently from under the arm. Patients also often require radiation therapy to the chest or arm, which can damage some of the lymph nodes that lymphatic fluid flows through. Lymphatic fluid is a clear liquid that runs throughout the body to remove substances such as waste and bacteria from the tissues. The removal or damage of lymph nodes can cause an excess flow of lymphatic fluid. Over time, excess fluid can overwhelm other pathways creating a backup of lymphatic fluid in the tissue, causing lymphedema, which is abnormal swelling occurring in the arm, breast, hand, or torso. 

If you or someone you know has or had breast cancer, watch out for the symptoms listed below so you can catch lymphedema in the early stages. 

  • Aching, tingling, feelings of discomfort in the arm, hand, or chest

  • Feeling of heaviness or fullness in the arm, hand, or chest

  • Decreased flexibility of joints such as wrist or shoulder 

  • Bursting or shooting pain sensations 

  • Swelling or puffiness of hands, arms, or chest

There is no cure for lymphedema, but there are ways that it can be treated. Lymphedema treatment includes patient education regarding proper skin care and exercises, manual lymphedema drainage massage to improve lymphatic flow and decrease swelling, compression bandaging to maintain edema reduction between sessions and education on proper compression garments to maintain reduction of swelling after discharged from therapy.

Monica Wendt, a physical therapist at Helen Newberry Joy Hospital, is a certified lymphedema specialist. She can work with you and help design a plan that is best for you and your body. You can make an appointment with Monica by calling 906.293.9231. A physician referral is necessary.