Lymphedema: All about the serious side effect in breast cancer survivors

  • Lymphedema is a common occurrence in those undergoing breast cancer treatment and can occur days, months or even years after the treatment. Know all about the condition
Lymphedema is seen when the functioning of the lymphatic system which is moving excess fluids around the body is disrupted.(Unsplash)
Lymphedema is seen when the functioning of the lymphatic system which is moving excess fluids around the body is disrupted.(Unsplash)
Published on May 21, 2022 09:38 AM IST
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Breast cancer treatment comes with its own set of side effects that includes the commonly experienced nausea, fatigue, pain and numbness, among other symptoms. While some of them can be easily managed, others are tricky and lymphedema is one of them. Lymphedema is a common occurrence in those undergoing breast cancer treatment and can occur days, months or even years after the treatment. A persistent and a dramatic swelling in your arm, leg or any other body part should not be ignored. Signs and symptoms of lymphedema can range from mild to severe and can impair one's ability to go about their daily chores due to difficulty in moving and debilitating pain. (See pics: Common side effects of chemotherapy and how they can be managed)

"Lymphedema is seen when the functioning of the lymphatic system which is moving excess fluids around the body is disrupted. Thus, the fluid tends to build up and there is swelling of soft tissues or lymphedema. There are two types of lymphedema - primary that is inherited or genetic factors and Secondary due to an injury or obstruction. Moreover, the majority of secondary lymphedema cases happen because of cancer or breast cancer treatment," Dr Reshma Palep, Breast Cancer Surgeon, Apollo Spectra Mumbai told HT Digital.

Stages of lymphedema(Wikipedia)
Stages of lymphedema(Wikipedia)

Symptoms of lymphedema

Here are the symptoms of lymphedema that are seen after the breast cancer treatment:

Breast cancer-related lymphedema is mainly seen in arm, starting from the hand at the back of the palm and progressing upwards. It can happen within days or years after taking the treatment.

"One will exhibit symptoms such as swelling, feeling of fullness or heaviness, in the arm, pain, tightness, numbness, tingling, weakness, difficulty using your arm, skin that feels thicker or leathery, skin sores, infection, or slow healing of wounds. This condition will interfere with one’s ability to do the daily chores with ease. One will also suffer from depression, stress, and anxiety due to the pain," says Dr Palep.

Causes of breast cancer-related lymphedema

The treatment-associated risk factors of this condition are removing axillary (armpit) lymph nodes, radiation therapy to underarm lymph nodes leading to scarring and blockage of the lymphatic system, cancer involving a large number of lymph nodes, mastectomy, scar tissue near lymph nodes that interferes with the lymphatic system.

Having diabetes, obesity and smoking can aggravate this condition further after having suffered from breast cancer and taking treatment to tackle it.

How to deal with this condition

"In order to tackle this problem, various modalities like exercise and taking a type of massage called manual lymph drainage helps. Improving the flow of lymph fluids by bandaging teqhniques done by a trained physiotherapist thus reducing swelling can be helpful. Lymphovenous anastomosis/bypass or vascularized lymph node transfer are some of the surgical procedures that can be beneficial for patients," says Dr Palep.

The breast cancer surgeon urges people to go for regular breast examination, exercise every day without fail, avoid using the affected arm for injections or blood pressure readings, seek medical attention for burns, skin infections, or injuries to the affected arm, and avoid wearing tight clothing around the area.

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