Breast Cancer

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After Treatment TOPICS

Lymphedema after breast cancer treatment

Lymphedema, or swelling of the arm from buildup of fluid, may occur any time after treatment for breast cancer. Any treatment that removes the axillary lymph nodes or gives radiation to the axillary lymph nodes carries the risk of lymphedema because normal drainage of lymph fluid from the arm is changed.

One of the first symptoms of lymphedema may be a feeling of tightness in the arm or hand on the same side that was treated for breast cancer. Any swelling, tightness, or injury to the arm or hand should be reported promptly to your doctor or nurse.

There is no good way to predict who will and will not develop lymphedema. It can occur right after surgery, or months, or even years later. The possibility of developing lymphedema remains throughout a woman's lifetime.

With care, lymphedema can often be avoided or, if it develops, kept under control. Injury or infection involving the affected arm or hand can contribute to the development of lymphedema or make existing lymphedema worse, so preventive measures should focus on protecting the arm and hand. Most doctors recommend that women avoid having blood drawn from or blood pressures taken on the arm on the side of the lymph node surgery or radiation.

To learn more, see our document, Lymphedema: What Every Woman with Breast Cancer Should Know.

Quality of life after breast cancer treatment

Women who have had treatment for breast cancer should be reassured that while they may be left with reminders of their treatment (such as surgical scars), their overall quality of life, once treatment has been completed, can be normal. Extensive studies have shown this. Women who have had chemotherapy may, however, notice a slight decrease in certain areas of function.

Some studies suggest that younger women, who represent about 1 out of 4 breast cancer survivors, tend to have more problems adjusting to the stresses of breast cancer and its treatment. They may have more trouble with emotional and social functioning. Some can feel isolated. For some women, chemotherapy may have caused early menopause, which can be very distressing on its own. There may also be sexual difficulties. These issues may be helped with counseling and support groups directed at younger breast cancer survivors.

Last Medical Review: 09/11/2013
Last Revised: 01/31/2014