Lymphedema is a condition that can occur as a result of breast cancer treatments. After surgery and radiation therapy, swelling may appear in the arm or chest. This is called lymphedema. But what is it, exactly? Lymphedema is a chronic condition caused by the build-up of fluid, which leads to edema, or swelling. It happens when the lymphatic system is unable to drain lymph (a protein-rich fluid) from the body’s tissues.
How does lymphedema happen?
Depending on the procedure and the disease, breast cancer surgery typically involves removing one or more lymph nodes from the chest or armpit area. Among other things, lymph nodes circulate lymph throughout the body and return the fluid to the venous system. They’re part of the lymphatic drainage system.
According to studies and the literature, the risk of developing lymphedema in the arm after cancer treatments varies from 5% to 40%. There are several explanations for why the risk varies from one study to the next. The more lymph nodes are removed during surgery (5 or more), the more intense the radiation, and the bigger the area irradiated, the higher the risk.
The risk of developing lymphedema is also higher in patients who receive radiation therapy (e.g., irradiation of the breast or armpit) in addition to surgery.
But there is some good news: According to an article by Adam Smeltz that appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2014, researchers estimate that as few as 15% of patients develop lymphedema following breast cancer treatments, down from 30% 15 years earlier.
In the vast majority of cases (more than 90%), lymphedema appears within two years of breast cancer treatments.
How to prevent or treat lymphedema?
The key to preventing or treating lymphedema is seeking immediate attention from a health professional who specializes in the condition. Clinical studies seem to indicate that starting physiotherapysoon after surgery or radiation therapy could reduce the risk of a patient developing lymphedema.
A physiotherapist with a background and training in lymphedema will assess the risk factors (infections, type of surgery) and measure your arm to establish an optimal treatment plan. The treatment can take different forms: exercises, manual drainage technique, compression bandage, compression garments, etc.
However, all these methods help to reduce the swelling in the arm and decrease the possible complications of lymphedema (infections, discomfort, etc.).
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.