Approximately 30 percent of women with breast cancer develop lymphedema sometime throughout their lives. Learn how to reduce your risk.

Breast cancer and lymphedema

Arm Closeup

Lymphedema is swelling of the arm, breast, trunk or leg from an accumulation of lymph fluid due to a change in the lymphatic or vascular system. Women who have undergone treatment for breast cancer (including removal of lymph nodes, chemotherapy and radiation) are at particular risk for developing lymphedema with approximately 30 percent of women with breast cancer developing lymphedema sometime throughout their lives.

Lymphedema can even develop several years after cancer treatment. Aside from swelling lymphedema often causes a feeling of heaviness, discomfort and an increased risk for infection to the affected area. While lymphedema is chronic condition, it can be managed with proper treatment and many people with lymphedema are able to lead healthy, active lifestyles.

Risk Reduction

While you can't completely prevent the onset of lymphedema you can reduce your risk of developing the condition:

  • Avoid any cuts, burns or scratches to the affected limb. If any of these occur be sure to wash the area thoroughly with soap and water and watch for signs of infection.
  • Seek medical attention of you see any signs of infection. These include redness, warmth, swelling and pain. This can lead to a more serious condition known as cellulitis.
  • Avoid having blood drawn or blood pressure taken on the affected side.
  • Maintain an ideal bodyweight.
  • Use your arm as normally as possible.

Arm Inspection

It is advised that women who are at higher risk for developing lymphedema after cancer treatment perform regular arm inspections to watch for early signs of lymphedema. In addition to increased swelling of the arm, many people report a feeling of heaviness or fatigue in the arm with the onset of lymphedema.

  • Make a fist with both hands. Compare your knuckles, tendons and veins on the back of your hands. Open up your hands and compare your fingers. Look for any differences in size or if tendons, veins and bones are not as visible on one side.
  • Turn your hands over and compare your wrists looking for differences in your veins and tendons as well as the creases in your wrist.  Take your hand and make a circle around each wrist again looking for any size differences.
  • Look at the inside of each elbow comparing your elbow creases and veins looking for any differences there as well.


If you have developed lymphedema, you should seek a referral from your doctor to see a certified lymphedema therapist who will provide you with education and an individualized treatment plan to help manage your condition. These physical and occupational therapists have received extensive training in treating lymphedema known as Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) which consists of the following:

  • Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) is a specialized massage technique which helps improve the function of the lymphatic system.
  • Compression Bandaging provides additional support to the tissues and is applied between treatments to prevent re-accumulation lymph fluid.
  • Exercises are performed while wearing compression bandages, muscle contractions will help to aid in further reduction of swelling.
  • Once swelling is reduced compression garments are important in lifelong management of lymphedema.


About The Author

Dr. Brianna Simmons specializes in lymphedema therapy as well as oncology and neurological rehabilitation. She is a graduate of Old Dominion University with more than seven years of experience as a physical therapist. In addition to spending time with friends and family, Brianna enjoys running, travel and can often be found on the water with her stand-up paddleboard.