Lymphedema After Breast Cancer

Lymphedema, a swelling that occurs in the arm, breast, or chest area after breast cancer treatment, often occurs after lymph node removal. Attached to those lymph nodes are networks of tiny lymph vessels that extend throughout the body and carry a watery fluid called lymph. When several lymph nodes and their lymph vessels are removed, the fluid has no place to go and can result in swelling.

Here’s what can help:

Elevation. Two to three times a day, elevate the affected arm to reduce the risk of swelling. Doing this uses the force of gravity to make it harder for fluids to stay in the elevated arm. To do this, lie down and place your arm on pillows so that your hand is higher than your wrist and your elbow is higher than your shoulder. Your entire arm must be above the level of your heart. Do this for 45 minutes at a time.

Use your arm. Maintain good circulation in your affected arm by continuing to use it in normal ways, such as for brushing your teeth and hair, bathing, and eating. Talk to your doctor about exercise that is appropriate.

Exercise your hand three to four times a day to minimize swelling. You can do this by holding your hand above the level of your heart and opening and closing the hand slowly 15 to 25 times.

Practice caution. Keep your affected arm clean and free of infections by doing your best to avoid any cuts, scrapes, or bites. If you do get an injury, clean and treat it thoroughly.

Moisturize. Use cream regularly to keep your hands, arms, and nails from drying out and cracking.

Flying. If you have to travel by air during this time period, ask your doctor if you should be fitted for a compression sleeve to prevent swelling during your flight.

The Lovelace Women’s Hospital Breast Care Center is New Mexico’s only breast care center accredited by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers for providing the highest level of quality care to its patients. Our team of breast health professionals will help you assess your risk of developing breast cancer, guide you through mammograms and clinical exams and teach you the proper method of breast self-examination. We also offer counseling, education and support programs.

For more information or to schedule a clinical breast exam or mammogram, call 505.727.6900 or visit our website.