November 01, 2021

Breast cancer and lymphedema

5 misconceptions about this common complication

Your breast cancer treatment is over, but the treatments that may have saved your life can continue to cause side effects. One of the most common is lymphedema, a chronic, often-misunderstood condition that causes swelling due to excess lymph fluid buildup in an area of the body.

The lymphatic system is part of the immune system. It circulates protein-rich lymph fluid throughout the body, collecting bacteria, viruses and waste in lymph vessels and nodes. The waste is then filtered by lymphocytes — infection-fighting cells that circulate in the blood and are concentrated in the lymph nodes — and ultimately flushed from the body.

Lymphedema can occur with any disturbance in natural lymphatic flow. In people with breast cancer, such disruptions are commonly caused by surgical procedures — such as sentinel node biopsy or axillary node dissection — to remove lymph nodes in the underarm for testing or treatment. Typically, the more lymph nodes removed, the greater the risk of lymphedema. Damage to lymph nodes from radiation treatment or tumor growth that blocks proper drainage also may result in lymphedema.

While the arm is a common site for lymphedema, it can also occur in other body areas, including the hands, breasts, neck, back, abdomen or legs. The swelling may be barely noticeable or so severe that moving that part of your body is challenging.

In addition to swelling and discomfort, untreated lymphedema can also cause serious complications, including bacterial skin infections (cellulitis) and infection of the lymph vessels (lymphangitis). Even the most minor injury to the arm or...