Are you at risk of lymphedema?

Are you at risk of lymphedema?

You’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer and have been referred to a breast surgeon to talk about your options. What are your biggest fears?

While some are obvious to the average person, others may be less so.

Dr. Heidi Memmel, a breast surgeon and the co-medical director of the Caldwell Breast Center at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., says aside from the obvious fear of not beating the disease, women with breast cancer generally come to her with three main fears of the side effects of treatment, those being: will I lose my hair, will I lose my breasts and will I get lymphedema?

While the average person can likely relate to the first two fears, many are less aware of the third concern and the risks associated with it.

According to, “Lymphedema is the build-up of fluid in soft body tissues when the lymph system is damaged or blocked.”

Some signs and symptoms of lymphedema include abnormal swelling and heaviness of the arms, in the case of breast cancer patients, trouble moving a joint in the arm, thickening of the skin and a tight feeling in the skin.

“Lymphedema typically occurs in breast cancer patients when some of the lymph nodes under the arms are taken out as part their surgery and treatment plan,” says Dr. Memmel. “Unfortunately, the condition is very hard to treat after a patient has developed it, so prevention is key.”

Lymphedema rates are 15-20 percent nationally for women who have a large group of lymph nodes removed and are even higher for women also undergoing radiation, says Dr. Memmel.

But that’s not the case for Lutheran General Hospital patients. In fact, lymphedema rates at Lutheran General are closer to two percent.

Why the dramatic difference?

“We recommend using a device that helps combat lymphedema before it starts,” explains Dr. Memmel. “A breast cancer patient can make an appointment with a physical therapist prior to and after surgery and use the device to measure fluid levels in their arms. This device detects early lymphedema when it is still reversible. If the levels go up after surgery, we fit them with a sleeve which they wear for a designated period of time, and this can prevent lymphedema from developing.”

The result of using this device: dramatically lower lymphedema rates and less for breast cancer patients to worry about post-surgery.

Worried about your breast cancer risk?

Our Breast Health Assessment estimates your five-year and lifetime risks of developing breast cancer.

Make an online mammogram screening appointment today.

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About the Author

Jackie Hughes
Jackie Hughes

Jacqueline Hughes is a former manager, media relations at Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care. Previously, she was the public affairs and marketing manager at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, IL. She earned her BA in psychology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Jackie has 10 plus years experience working in television and media and most recently worked at NBC 5 in Chicago. In her free time, she enjoys swimming, going to the movies and spending time with her family.