Lymphedema is a worry for many women post breast cancer surgery and others post other cancer surgeries that include the removal of lymph nodes. When nodes are missing, the lymph fluid cannot circulate in the normal way and sometimes backs up and causes swollen arms or legs. This usually isn't painful, but it can be uncomfortable and awkward and obvious. It may also carry an increased risk of infection, and that is potentially very dangerous.
It is impossible to find accurate statistics about the incidence of lymphedema after axillary node dissection for breast cancer. It is important to note that fewer women are having complete axillary node dissections now that sentinal node biopsies are the standard of care. Only when the sentinel node (s) is positive/contains cancer cells is the larger surgery needed. This is a change; a decade or more ago, virtually everyone had the full dissection.
Women who are at the highest risk for lymphedema are women who have had the full dissection and radiation that included the arm pit area in the radiation field. Even for them, however, the incidence is relatively low. There is no cure for lymphedema, so the emphasis is always on prevention.
From Cancer Care comes this helpful information sheet:
COPING WITH LYMPHEDEMA
Lymphedema is a common side effect of cancer treatment. By learning
about this diagnosis and its treatment options, communicating with your
health care team, and surrounding yourself with a support network, you
will be better able to manage your lymphedema and experience a better
quality of life.
WHAT IS LYMPHEDEMA?
Lymphedema is a painful swelling
that happens when your body’s
lymphatic fluid is unable to
circulate properly and builds up
in your soft tissues. People with
cancer who have undergone lymph
node removal and/or radiation
as part of their treatment are at
risk for developing lymphedema.
Lymphedema most commonly
occurs in the arms or legs.
Lymphedema can be managed
successfully with a combination
of medical treatment, lifestyle
changes and at-home remedies.
Read more: https://www.cancercare.org/publications/78-coping_with_lymphedema