Cancer Demystified: Lymphedema and Breast Cancer

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Lymphedema and Breast Cancer: Can it be Prevented?

After breast cancer surgery, my mother developed swelling in her arm. It is so bad now that she has to wear a therapeutic arm sleeve every day. Is there something we could have done to prevent this from happening?

Arm swelling after a breast cancer surgery is called lymphedema, also known as lymphatic obstruction, a condition of localized fluid retention and tissue swelling caused by a compromised lymphatic system. During a breast cancer surgery, the removal of lymph nodes can cause a disruption of the lymph flow, resulting in possible scarring of the lymph channels. Lymphedema, highest in women who have had mastectomies and axillary dissections, can also occur in women who have breast conserving surgery. The reported incidence of lymphedema following breast cancer surgery is between 15% and 25%. Very noticeable lymphedema is often experienced by 15% of patients; while 25% report they notice measurable changes in the arm, but little swelling.

Results of a study completed this year have shown that, yes, lymphedema can be prevented. The study looked at two groups of women starting the day of their initial surgeries. Half of the women were instructed to receive Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD), which is a specialized type of gentle massage designed to aid lymphatic circulation and performed by a trained specialist. The other half of the women were given normal post-operative instruction, which did not include MLD. Those patients with MLD instructions received their first massage two days after surgery, followed by two weeks of daily therapy, and then continued treatment twice a week for six months. Results showed that the group receiving no MLD developed lymphedema at the normal rate of 10% six months after surgery. The group receiving the MLD resulted in not a single case of lymphedema among the women in the study.

In conclusion, Manual Lymph Drainage can be beneficial to the breast cancer patient. By starting MLD early on, the patient gets a “head start” in the fight against swelling. Breast cancer patients should talk to their doctors about adding MLD massages to their aftercare.