Women's Health

Breast Cancer Side Effects: Lymphedema

Breast Cancer Side Effects: Lymphedema

Breast Cancer Side Effects: Lymphedema

A breast cancer diagnosis can completely blind side a person, but so can the side effects during and after treatment. There are a lot of unpleasant and rarely discussed side effects that emerge both during and after treatment, sometimes even life long. As a patient, knowing what to expect and understanding what the body is going through can help patients cope with the unpleasant side effects.

Lymphedema is a known side effect but not often talked about. During the initial diagnosis and treatment, tons of potential side effects are listed but the unfamiliar ones are often the first to disappear from memory.

What exactly is lymphedema?

If you dissect the medical terminology behind the term, it defines the term quite well. Lymph is fluid that makes rounds in the body collecting toxic substances, waste, and bacteria before it’s then filtered through the lymph nodes. Edema is the collection or retention of fluid in the body. In your underarm region sits bundles of lymph nodes that filter out toxins and bacteria from your breast tissue and other areas. Because of their close proximity to the breasts, when breast cancer spreads, it can show up in your underarm lymph nodes.

In order to prevent the spread of breast cancer systemically, lymph nodes are removed from the underarm to determine whether or not cancer is present. If it is, more lymph nodes may be removed to negate metastasis. When these lymph nodes are removed, your body loses an essential filtration system. You have lymph nodes in several different places throughout the body, but removing two bundles creates a greater influx of lymph in the other lymph nodes. For the most part, the body does a great job filtering out the excess lymph, but some bodies have a difficult time keeping up, resulting lymph fluid retention, or lymphedema.

During radiation and chemo, other parts of your delicate lymph nodes and filtration vessels may become damaged, making it difficult for lymph to flow through the vessels efficiently. Think of it like a kink in a hose; some fluid gets through but not nearly as efficiently as a hose that's unkinked.

What takes most patients by surprise is the occurrence of lymphedema months and, in some cases, even years after they’ve finished their cancer treatments. The body is always attempting to be as efficient as possible, and sometimes it truly takes this amount of time for the effects of missing lymph nodes and damaged vessels to show their stress. After undergoing cancer treatment, the emergence of lymphedema can be frustrating and disheartening, but it is treatable.

What to look for

Although the name really speaks for itself in terms of what to look for symptoms-wise, you might be surprised to find out other ways to pinpoint lymphedema. Lymphedema is most commonly seen in the arms and hands, but it has been known to appear in other areas of the body too. Other areas that could potentially be affected by lymphedema include the breasts, underarms, back, chest, and the trunk of the body.

Read on to learn more about lymphedema symptoms, treatment, and prevention methods.