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Breast Cancer-Related Lymphedema

Oct 04, 2013

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. If you or a loved one is afflicted with breast cancer, there is another condition of which you need to be aware: lymphedema.  Not every woman with breast cancer will develop lymphedema, but each woman should be aware of the risks.

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is an abnormal swelling of a body part which is caused by lymphatic fluid building up in body tissue.

What does the lymphatic system do?

The lymphatic system, which includes lymph nodes, vessels and organs, carries lymph fluid away from body tissues, drains away extra fluids and protein and, as part of our body’s immune system, produces white blood cells.

Why does the lymphatic system fail to work properly after breast cancer surgery?

Lymphedema can occur when the lymphatic system is damaged, such as when lymph nodes are removed during surgery or exposed to radiation as part of breast cancer treatment. As a result, lymph fluid cannot drain normally and that part of the body becomes swollen and heavy with fluid. Breast cancer-related lymphedema may affect the arm, hand, breast or trunk.

How do you know if you’re at risk?

The risk of developing lymphedema after breast cancer treatment increases with the number of nodes removed and can be further increased if radiation therapy is performed.  The swelling can occur weeks to months after breast cancer surgery or even years later.  Although lymphedema is a lifelong condition, it can be managed with the right treatment and care.

Early signs and symptoms to watch out for:

  • heaviness, aching, or pain in arm

  • ·visible swelling in arm and/or hand

  • arm becomes tired more quickly than usual

  • skin of arm, hand, or breast feels tight

  • clothing or jewelry feels tight

What type of treatment is available for lymphedema?

The most effective treatment for lymphedema is called Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT). CDT includes Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD), compressive bandaging, decongestive exercises and education on skin & nail care.  CDT can help reduce the severity of lymphedema symptoms, and for high risk patients, help reduce chances of developing lymphedema. It is important to seek care as soon as the slightest swelling is noticed. If you think you are at risk, it is important to learn about precautions you can take to possibly prevent lymphedema. Ask your doctor for a referral to see a certified lymphedema therapist.  Referrals can be made by your primary care doctor, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, surgeon, plastic surgeon or nurse navigator.

Most lymphedema treatments are scheduled 2-3 times per week for 3-4 weeks. Each treatment session is approximately 1 ½ hours.

At the Baptist Breast Center, services are provided by

Cheryl Villaret, PT, CLT
Physical Therapist/Certified Lymphedema Therapist

At Northeast Baptist HealthLink, services are provided by

Neha Shah, PT, CLT and Jana Lipe, PT, CLT

If you are a member of the News Media, please contact Ashley Cardenas, Director of Public Relations at 210-297-1000 (office) or 210-837-2983 (cell).