October is Breast Cancer Month and a great time to bring awareness to a condition called lymphedema that can develop after breast cancer treatment. Lymphedema is defined as abnormal swelling, which in the case of breast cancer, is caused by damage to the lymph nodes (part of our lymphatic system) during either surgery or radiation treatment. It often occurs in the arms.

Our bodies have a large number of lymph nodes near our armpit region. Individuals who have undergone surgery or radiation for breast cancer are more likely to develop lymphedema due to the proximity of these lymph nodes to the breast tissue being treated, or during procedures in which lymph nodes are removed to examine if the breast cancer has spread. The chances of developing lymphedema are from 7-40% with the greatest risk being within the first 3 years after treatment.1, 2 It is important to note that unlike other forms of swelling we experience in our bodies, lymphedema cannot be cured. 

However, there are ways we can reduce the risk of developing lymphedema after breast cancer treatment. These include performing daily skin checks to look for signs of swelling or irritation, keeping skin moisturized, wearing sunscreen, and engaging in physical activity under the supervision of a trained health care provider, like a physiotherapist.

Not only can physical activity and exercise reduce the likelihood of developing lymphedema, but it can help manage it too! When exercising, our muscles act like a pump and can help push the excess fluid out of the limbs and back into the lymphatic system, reducing swelling. Seeing a physiotherapist with training in breast cancer and lymphedema care will allow you to be certain that the exercises you are performing are safe and appropriate and work with you to develop a comprehensive home exercise program. Your physiotherapist may also teach you self-massage techniques, breathing exercises, and discuss other courses of treatment such as compression garments and lymphatic drainage massage. 

If you would like to learn more about how physiotherapy can help during and after breast cancer treatment, please call the clinic or visit our website to book an appointment!

-Hilary Veenstra, PT

  1. Petrek, J. A., Senie, R. T., Peters, M., & Rosen, P. P. (2001). Lymphedema in a cohort of breast carcinoma survivors 20 years after diagnosis. Cancer92(6), 1368–1377. https://doi.org/10.1002/1097-0142(20010915)92:6<1368::aid-cncr1459>3.0.co;2-9
  2. Paskett, E. D., Naughton, M. J., McCoy, T. P., Case, L. D., & Abbott, J. M. (2007). The epidemiology of arm and hand swelling in premenopausal breast cancer survivors. Cancer epidemiology, biomarkers & prevention : a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, cosponsored by the American Society of Preventive Oncology16(4), 775–782. https://doi.org/10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-06-0168