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Lymphedema After Breast Cancer Surgery

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Have you noticed swelling in your arms or legs after breast cancer surgery? If so, tell your doctor. She might want to check you for lymphedema. It’s common for women to get this condition after their breast cancer treatment.

What Is Lymphedema?

The buildup of lymph, a fluid your body makes, happens when lymph vessels or nodes that the fluid travels through are missing, damaged, or removed.

There are two types of lymphedema: primary and secondary.

Primary is rare. It happens when certain lymph vessels are missing or faulty at birth.

Secondary lymphedema happens when a blockage or another problem changes the flow of lymph fluid through your body's network of lymph vessels and nodes. It can develop not only after breast cancer surgery, but can also come from an infection, scar tissue formation, trauma, deep vein thrombosis (a blood clot in a vein), radiation, or other cancer treatments.

Who's at Risk for Lymphedema?

People who've had any of these procedures may be at risk:

  • Simple mastectomy in combination with axillary (arm pit) lymph node removal
  • Lumpectomy in combination with axillary lymph node removal
  • Modified radical mastectomy in combination with axillary lymph node removal
  • Combined cancer surgery and radiation therapy to a lymph node region (such as the neck, armpit, groin, pelvis, or abdomen)
  • Radiation therapy to a lymph node region

You can get lymphedema within a few days of surgery, but it can also happen months or years afterward. If untreated, it can become worse.

What Are the Symptoms?

A small amount of swelling, even in your arm, is normal for the first 4 to 6 weeks after breast cancer surgery. Some women may also have redness or pain in the arm, which may be a symptom of inflammation or an infection.

But if you think you have any of the symptoms below, call your doctor right away. Prompt treatment can help get lymphedema under control.

  • Swelling in the arms, hands, fingers, shoulders, chest, or legs.
  • A "full" or heavy sensation in the arms or legs
  • Skin tightness
  • Less flexibility in your hand, wrist, or ankle
  • Trouble fitting into clothing in one specific area
  • A tight-fitting bracelet, watch, or ring that wasn't tight before
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