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  • Writer's pictureAbby Maleport

What can you do as a breast cancer survivor to know your risk of developing lymphedema

It's a staggering number that represents the number of women (and men) that are affected by breast cancer. Statistics taken from state:

"In 2020, an estimated 276,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 48,530 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer.

About 2,620 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in men in 2020. A man’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is about 1 in 883."

This is 1 in 8 women. WOW, kind of scary. If a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment isn't scary enough, add to it that 1 out of 5 of those survivors will develop breast cancer-related lymphedema. I don't like the odds of that. If you are one of these women or know someone who is, I hope they have been warned by their oncologist about the this risk. If not, it is my job to educate you.

What is lymphedema? Lymphedema is a chronic disease that develops due to a deficit in the lymphatic system. This results in an accumulation of fluid and plasma proteins in the space between out cells, which leads to swelling, and lots of it. I like to call it a "traffic jam of fluid." Think of a busy 4 lane highway and all of the sudden there is a vehicle accident that shuts down 2 of the lanes, what happens, but traffic backs up and moves very slowly, if at all. In folks with breast cancer, this most often occurs due to radiation and/or removal of lymphatic tissue, particularly lymph nodes. But can also be brought on by recurrent infections, scarring and other co-morbidities.

The bad news: Lymphedema does not have a cure. That is why it is so very important to catch it early to help reduce symptoms and prevent them for worsening. There also seems to be no rhyme or reason why one person develops lymphedema over the next. The amount of lymph nodes removed has no bearing on whether you will develop it. A person with one lymph node can develop lymphedema before a person with 7 lymph nodes removed. There is no guaranteed prevention. This just isn't fair, right?

The good news: There are treatment options and things you can do to heighten your awareness of symptoms in order to catch it early before symptoms get out of hand and threaten to ruin your quality of life.

1. Take pre-operative/treatment measurements of your affected sides limb so that you can compare limb size monthly to look for subtle changes that may not be visible by observation. Here is a great resource from Lohmann-Rauscher:

2. Watch for a feeling of heaviness in the limb or decreased flexibility.

3. Pay attention to aching pain or general discomfort in the limb, especially skin tightness, which is a sign of swelling.

4. Skin changes are a typical presentation of lymphedema which includes a thickening or hardening of the skin due to protein accumulation under the skin.

5. Avoid tight fitting clothing that could disrupt lymphatic flow, this also includes heavy purses and tight fitting bras.

6. Take precautions to prevent injury to the affected side. Wear gloves during gardening, avoid needle sticks and blood pressure cuffs on the affected side.

7. Maintain a healthy weight. There are numerous studies that show obesity is a high risk component for developing lymphedema.

8. Maintain or start an exercise routine with the guidance of your physician or trained provider.

So what if you notice these signs? Talk to your doctor right way. Your doctor may be able to refer you to a specialist called a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT) who has advanced training in dealing with lymphedema.

Treatment of lymphedema is significantly improved if caught early. The gold standard treatment of lymphedema is called complete decongestive therapy (CDT) and is composed of manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), compression bandaging, exercise, skin care and compliance with a home self care program. Often the prescription of a compression garment will be used to prevent accumulation of advanced swelling and maintain limb size after CDT is complete.

There are many variable in breast cancer-related lymphedema, but by knowing the above information, you are one step ahead.

For more information and support on breast cancer related lymphedema check the following resources:

Thank you for reading! If you live in the Green Bay, WI region, I would be honored to be your certified lymphedema therapist! You can schedule a FREE 30 minute consult on my website at if you have current swelling issues. Or book a lymphatic massage to help circulate your lymph as a preventative measure.

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