As part of their surgery, many people with breast cancer have a few or more lymph nodes removed from under the arm (sentinel lymph node biopsy or axillary lymph node dissection).

Breast Cancer LymphnodesIf the cancer has spread, it has most likely moved into those underarm lymph nodes first, because they drain lymph from the breast. Many people also need radiation therapy to the chest area and/or underarm. Surgery and radiation can cut off or damage some of the nodes and vessels through which lymph moves. Over time, the flow of lymph can overwhelm the remaining pathways, resulting in fluid congestion into the upper arm. (Read more ... What is Lymphedema)

Although there’s no way to know for sure whether you’ll develop lymphedema after breast cancer, you can help yourself by learning more about it. Know your risk factors, take steps to reduce your risk, and be aware of early symptoms. Left untreated, lymphedema can worsen and cause severe swelling and permanent changes to the tissues under the skin, such as thickening and scarring.

A small amount of arm swelling is normal for the first 4 to 6 weeks after breast cancer surgery. Some women may also have redness or pain in the arm, which may be a symptom of inflammation or an infection.

If you think you have any of the symptoms below, you need to discuss with your doctor. Prompt treatment can help get lymphedema under control.

  • Swelling in the arms, hands, fingers, shoulders, chest, or legs.
  • A "full" or heavy sensation in the arms or legs
  • Skin tightness
  • Less flexibility in your hand or wrist
  • Trouble fitting into clothing in one specific area
  • A tight-fitting bracelet, watch, or ring that wasn't tight before

Apart from esthetic dysmorphia, lymphedema can cause skin dryness and breakdown, skin thickening and frequent infections. Lymphedema can also cause long-term psychological and social problems for patients. There's no cure but it can be managed with early diagnosis and diligent care of your affected arm swelling and associated symptoms can be minimized.