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

AUGUST 28, 2017

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 sentinel 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:


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. 

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.

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