Lymphedema is a problem that may occur after cancer surgery when lymph nodes are removed. Lymphedema can occur months or years after the surgery. It’s a chronic (ongoing) condition that has no cure. But steps can be taken to reduce or relieve symptoms. If left untreated, lymphedema can get worse. Treatment right away can lower your risk of infections and complications.

What is the lymphatic system?

The lymphatic system is a network of tiny vessels and small, bean-shaped organs called lymph nodes that carry lymph throughout the body. Lymph is a clear, colorless fluid that contains a few blood cells. It starts in many organs and tissues. The lymphatic system is part of your immune system. It helps protect and maintain the fluid of your body by filtering and draining lymph and waste products away from each body region. The lymphatic system also helps the body fight infection.

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How lymphedema happens

During surgery for cancer, nearby lymph nodes are often removed. This disrupts the flow of lymph, which can lead to swelling. This is lymphedema. Lymphedema can affect one or both arms or legs or the belly. Swelling can worsen and become severe. Skin sores or other problems can develop. Affected areas are also more likely to become infected.

Often during breast cancer treatment, some or all of the lymph nodes under the arm may be removed or treated with radiation. The lymph nodes under the arm are also called the axillary lymph nodes. They drain the lymphatic vessels from the upper arms, the majority of the breast, neck, and underarm area.

When many lymph nodes under the arm have been removed, a woman is at higher risk of lymphedema for the rest of her life. Radiation treatments to the under arm lymph nodes can cause scarring and blockages that further increase the risk of lymphedema. Lymphedema may occur right after surgery or radiation, or months or even years later.

Click here to learn the symptoms of lymphedema and the different treatments.

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