Lymphedema and Breast Cancer Treatment

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

DECEMBER 01, 2023

Lymphedema, a tissue swelling condition caused by an accumulation of white blood cells in the lymph nodes, is sometimes associated with breast cancer treatment. Most commonly, the lymph fluid collects under the arms in an area called the axilla, causing the tissue around it to swell. This typically happens following breast cancer surgery as nearby lymph nodes are removed, disrupting the flow of lymph fluid. 

Though anyone receiving breast cancer treatment may develop lymphedema, women who have undergone a full axillary dissection and radiation therapy are most at-risk. Other potential risk factors include: 

  • Post-surgical infections
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Exposure to radiation therapy

A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology examined the results of a large, multi-national trial called PREVENT. The study aimed to identify risk factors for chronic breast cancer-related lymphedema and prove the value of screening. Evidence found that screening resulted in early detection, better treatment, and lower morbidity rates for at-risk women.

While lymphedema can be treated, it’s very rarely cured. Standard treatments for lymphedema include physical therapy, compression garments, complex decongestive therapy, and patient education. Surgical interventions may include lymph node transplants, creating new drainage paths, and the removal of fibrous tissue. 

Learn more about lymphedema treatment at the Boston Lymphatic Center

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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