Coffee with Komen – Lymphedema

By Kim Lanoue

Patient Navigator, YWCA Women’s Cancer Program, Lafayette, Indiana

“What is Lymphedema and why is my doctor talking about watching for swelling in my arm?”  This is a question many survivors who have had breast cancer surgery may be asking or wondering about. That is, if their physician even mentioned that this could be a problem.

Lymphedema is a build- up of lymph fluid. As the fluid builds up, it can cause swelling in the fatty tissues under the skin in your arm, hand, fingers, chest and back. This is caused by unavoidable damage being done to the lymphatic system during breast cancer surgery, when the lymph nodes are checked to see if cancer has spread.  After removing lymph nodes it may makes it harder for fluid to flow out of those areas and cause swelling, which is called Lymphedema. The more lymph nodes that are removed and having radiation for breast cancer puts survivors at highest risk for developing lymphedema.

In most cases lymphedema develops slowly overtime and can happen right after surgery, weeks, months or even years later. Not everyone will have lymphedema.  It is not known why some survivors develop it and why others don’t. There is a lot of research being done that is leading to procedures being changed; allowing surgeons to remove fewer lymph nodes, in the hopes that fewer survivors in the future will develop lymphedema.

How Is Lymphedema Treated? It depends on how much swelling there is and its cause. If an infection is to blame, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. Other treatments can include bandaging, compression garments, exercises, and manual lymphatic drainage, a gentle form of massage. Getting treated as soon as possible is very important. If you don’t get medical care for lymphedema, it can lead to more swelling and a hardening of the tissue which can also lead to infections and other illnesses.

It is important to speak with your physician about meeting with a trained lymphedema therapist to establish a baseline before you have surgery. This will allow for a more accurate timely diagnosis when the swelling first starts and it is easier to treat. After surgery some survivors may begin wearing a compression garment preventatively, especially if they are at a higher risk. Your doctor or therapist should make that recommendation and have you fitted properly to be sure you are wearing the appropriate garment. A poorly fit garment can increase your risk or make early lymphedema worse, so be sure to check with a certified lymphedema therapist before wearing a compression garment.

It is not known if lymphedema can be prevented but you may be able to reduce your risk by trying to prevent injury and infection by protecting the affected arm and hand. Wearing gloves, avoiding over exposure to sun or extreme heat, cautiously trim and file nails, keep the skin moisturized and clean, and avoid blood draws, blood pressure checks and injections in the affected arm.

Tell your doctor or therapist if you see or feel any changes in your arm, hand, chest or back.  Getting treatment early can lead to shorter treatment times, and keep lymphedema under control. If you can’t afford lymphedema products reach out to Susan G. Komen to find local organizations that can assist with paying for those.

For more information about Lymphedema the following organizations are good sources of education and support:

Susan G. Komen Facts for Life-Lymphedema: or 1-877-465-6636

Lymphology Association of North America (LANA):

National Cancer Institute: www.cancer.gove or 1-800-4-CANCER

National Lymphedema Network: or 1-800-541-3259

Lymphatic Education & Research Network (LE & RN) or 516-625-9675