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Reducing Your Risk for Lymphedema After Breast Cancer Treatment

Healthcare provider drawing blood from woman's arm.

After breast surgeryor radiation, fluid may collect and cause swelling in the arm and chest on the side of the treatment. This is called lymphedema. The lymphatic system helps the body fight infection. It's made up of a system of small vessels throughout the body. Lymph fluid travels through these vessels. Many tiny organs called lymph nodes are scattered through the system. These nodes filter lymph fluid. Lymphedema can happen after lymph nodes and vessels under the arm are removed or the underarm area is treated with radiation therapy. The lymph nodes and vessels are damaged and the normal flow of fluids in the arm is reduced. To help make developing lymphedema less likely, follow the tips on this handout. You are at risk for lymphedema for the rest of your life, so make these tips part of your regular habits. 

Avoid excess use of the affected arm

  • Carry purses and heavy packages with the arm on your non-operated side, or use both arms.

  • Don’t avoid using your affected arm. Use it like you normally would, but try not to over do it. Also, avoid heavy lifting, pulling, and repetitive motions.

  • Build strength in the affected arm with gentle moves such as making a fist. Talk to your healthcare provider about excercises that are safe to do and what your limits should be.

Keep fluid moving to prevent swelling

  • If at all possible, don't let anyone draw blood from your affected arm. Do not have injections or blood pressure tests on that arm.

  • Raise your affected arm above your heart when you sit or lie down.

  • Don’t wear tight sleeves, elastic cuffs, bracelets, wristwatches, or rings on your affected arm or hand.

Protect your arm and skin from infection

  • Wear gloves when you garden, use harsh chemicals, or handle garbage.

  • Wash, treat, and cover even the smallest cut.

  • Use insect repellent to help prevent bug bites.

  • Use clean razor on clean skin  if you shave under your arms.

  • Don’t pick at, bite,  or cut the skin around your fingernails. Use a cuticle stick to push your cuticles back.

  • Be careful to prevent sunburns and burns from cooking.

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider if your arm, hand, or chest is:

  • Swollen or red

  • Hot

  • Painful


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