There is a relationship between lymphedema and cancer. Lymphedema, a condition characterized by swelling in the arm or leg, is a potential side effect of breast cancer surgery and radiation therapy. It can affect people during the months or years after their cancer treatment. 

Cancer-Related Lymphedema: Why it occurs?

Breast cancer surgery and radiation therapy can damage some of the nodes and vessels through which the lymph moves. The lymph is the thin, clear fluid that circulates throughout the body. It is responsible for removing wastes, bacteria, and other substances from the tissues. When the nodes and vessels through which it flows are damaged, it can overwhelm its remaining pathways, leading to a backup of fluid in the body's tissues.  

Reducing Your Risk

There's no definite way to tell whether or not you're going to develop lymphedema after your breast cancer treatments. However, you can do the following to help reduce your risk or the severity of your lymphedema if it occurs:  

  1. 1. D
    iscuss lymphedema with your provider before your treatment 
    Many women with cancer-related lymphedema are usually caught by surprise with their diagnosis. It's because in most cases, lymphedema is not discussed as part of the treatment process.  
    Although you can't control the extent of your cancer treatment and its side effects, discussing lymphedema with your healthcare provider can help you prepare for what's coming.  

  1. 2. Ask if sentinel lymph node biopsy can be an option 
    The more underarm lymph nodes are removed, the greater is your risk of developing lymphedema. So ask your surgeon if sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) can be an option. In contrast with the axillary lymph node dissection (ALND), which takes out many lymph nodes, SLNB only removes two to four lymph nodes.  

  1. 3. Schedule an appointment with a physical therapist 
    Prior to surgery, see a physical therapist. He/she can record baseline measurements around your arm/hand, assess your activity level, and teach you flexibility and stretching exercises that can improve your arm's range of motion after surgery. These exercises can also be helpful in preventing stiffness. Getting your arm moving before surgery and in the weeks after can help reducing your risk of lymphedema. 

Lymphedema and cancer may be closely associated but this doesn't mean that you automatically get lymphedema after your cancer treatments.  

Getting informed and being proactive are essential keys to reduce your risk of lymphedema after cancer. 

Image: liz west 

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