Lymphedema: What Every Woman With Breast Cancer Should Know

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What to do after surgery or radiation to help reduce swelling

Right after surgery, the incision (cut) in the breast and underarm area may swell. This swelling usually goes away slowly over the next 6 to 12 weeks. Some women also have swelling in the affected arm, which may go away on its own. But arm swelling after breast surgery can mean a higher risk of lymphedema later.

Talk to your doctor or nurse about what you should expect and what you should do. These tips may help ease the swelling:

  • Use your affected arm as you normally would when combing your hair, bathing, dressing, and eating.
  • Put your affected arm above the level of your heart 2 or 3 times a day and keep it there for 45 minutes. Lie down to do this, and fully support your arm. Place your arm up on pillows so that your hand is higher than your wrist and your elbow is a little higher than your shoulder.
  • Exercise your affected arm while it’s supported above the level of your heart by opening and closing your hand 15 to 25 times. Repeat this 3 to 4 times a day. This helps reduce swelling by pumping lymph fluid out of your arm through the undamaged lymph vessels.
  • Talk to your doctor, nurse, or physical therapist before doing any exercises. Exercise is an important part of fitness, but you need time to heal after surgery and should follow the advice of your cancer care team.
  • Keep in mind that radiation therapy after surgery may also cause some swelling in the arm, chest, and breast, especially toward the end of treatment. In most cases, this swelling will only last a short time and will slowly go away. During and after radiation therapy, you should do simple stretching exercises each day to keep full movement in your chest, arm, and shoulder muscles. The tissue damage from radiation treatment can continue over many years, so plan to make these simple stretching exercises a long-term part of your daily routine.

If you notice tingling or strange sensations in your arm after surgery or radiation, talk with your doctor, even if you haven’t noticed swelling. If you feel uncomfortable, ask your doctor to refer you to a specialist who’s an expert in managing lymphedema.

Some doctors measure the arms before surgery, then re-measure afterward so that swelling can be detected and treated before it becomes obvious. You can ask your doctor to take these measurements or refer you to a physical therapist to have this done. If possible, ask to be referred to a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT).

When to get help

Call your doctor, nurse, physical therapist, or lymphedema therapist if you notice any of the signs of lymphedema listed above or any of these changes:

  • If any part of your affected arm, chest, breast, or underarm area feels hot, looks red, or swells suddenly. These could be a sign of infection or a blood clot, and you might need treatment right away.
  • If you have a temperature of 100.5°F or higher (taken by mouth) that’s not related to a cold or flu
  • If you have any new pain in the affected area with no known cause

Last Medical Review: 07/10/2015
Last Revised: 07/10/2015