What is lymphedema?

What is lymphedema?

Many people are aware of the common physical side effects that breast cancer patients experience when they go through treatment like hair loss, fatigue and the potential of a mastectomy, among other issues.

But there is one that is less talked about and very common symptom – lymphedema; fortunately, it can be prevented.

Lymphedema is a swelling caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system.

An important part of the breast cancer diagnosing process is to “stage” the cancer. This is when a physician identifies the extent of cancer within the body to determine the best course of treatment. One of the pieces of information a physician needs to determine the stage is to determine if the cancer is in the lymph nodes, or glands, underneath the arm.

Staging for breast cancer is typically done by removing a few lymph nodes, called a sentinel lymph node biopsy, or by performing a dissection to check many lymph nodes at once, called an axillary lymph node dissection. A common complication associated with these procedures is lymphedema. This condition can be managed but it is considered uncurable.

“This major side effect from breast cancer surgery could be prevented with a simple and innovative technique called axillary reverse mapping,” says Dr. Ameer Gomberawalla, a breast cancer surgeon at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill. “This technique is when blue dye is injected into the upper arm and essentially lights up the lymphatic channels and lymph nodes that drain fluid from the arms. When surgeons are able to easily identify these structures, they can avoid compromising them during the staging surgery.”

So, what’s the outcome?

Usually, rates of lymphedema in the arm after a sentinel node biopsy ranges from 3 to 8 percent and from 13 to 40 percent after a dissection. The studies that have looked at axillary reverse mapping show a lymphedema rate that is significantly lower, around 1 to 3 percent for the biopsy and 4 to 9 percent for the dissection.

Using this approach can make a drastic difference in the likelihood of someone developing lymphedema and is one less thing for breast cancer patients to have to worry about.

“As a breast surgeon, my mission is to reduce the collateral damage of breast cancer treatment,” says Dr. Gomberawalla. “Patients already go through enough fighting this disease, so we should try to do everything we can to help them get back to their lives as seamlessly as possible.”

If you have already been diagnosed with lymphedema, Dr. Gomberawalla recommends contacting your physician about tips to help alleviate discomfort like exercise and compression devices.

Our Breast Health Assessment estimates your five-year and lifetime risks of developing breast cancer. Knowing your chances may lead you to routine screenings – a critical first step in a battle against the disease. 

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About the Author

Marrison Worthington
Marrison Worthington

Marrison Worthington, health enews contributor, is a public affairs and marketing manager at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Illinois. She is a graduate of Illinois State University and has several years of global corporate communications experience under her belt. Marrison loves spending her free time traveling, reading organizational development blogs, trying new cooking recipes, and playing with her golden retriever, Ari.