Lymphedema, as a side effect from breast cancer treatment, needs to receive greater recognition than it currently does. While advances in surgical techniques and overall treatment strategies for breast cancer have been able to reduce lymphedema risk, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, it still remains that anywhere from 14-40% will develop lymphedema secondary to breast cancer treatment.
Why is there such a large range in those who could potentially develop this? The reason is because risk of developing breast cancer-related lymphedema (BCRL) primarily depends on the treatment approach used for each individual.
In honor of breast cancer awareness month, we would like to shed more light and awareness on BCRL. Throughout the month of October, we will be sharing blog articles related to lymphedema, risk factors for the development of lymphedema during and after treatment of breast cancer, side effects from radiation therapy and post-surgical techniques, as well as how all of the above can impact shoulder mobility and function.
Lymphedema is a build-up of swelling within the lymphatic system. This can occur as a result of either damage to the lymphatic system or removal of vital components of it.
The lymphatic system plays a large role in immune defense. When this system becomes overwhelmed, and is not able to handle its normal workload, lymphatic congestion will occur in that particular area that is struggling.
Lymphedema most often begins gradually versus suddenly. A slow onset of tightness, heaviness and mild swelling will usually begin in the at-risk arm.
While preventative measures can be taken and should be discussed with your medical team to help reduce your risk of lymphedema, if you do begin noticing any of these signs or symptoms, it is important to inform your doctor right away. Your doctor can help refer you to a Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT) to begin treatment and avoid swelling progression.
1. Rockson, M.D. SG. Lymphedema after Breast Cancer Treatment. Solomon, M.D., M.P.H. CG, ed. N Engl J Med 2018; 379:1937-1944. doi: 10.1056/NEJMcp1803290. Accessed September 24, 2022.
2. The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team. What Is Lymphedema? American Cancer Society. Updated May 25, 2021. Accessed September 24, 2022. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/lymphedema/what-is-lymphedema.html.
3. Stages of Lymphedema. National Lymphedema Network. Accessed September 24, 2022. https://lymphnet.org/stages-of-lymphedema.