What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is an accumulation of fluid (lymph) in soft body tissues, due to impairment of the lymphatic vessels.  This build up of lymph causes swelling called lymphedema.

The lymphatic system carries a clear fluid called lymph, which drains out from tiny blood capillaries to lymphatic vessels throughout the body.  Lymph contains water, fats, white blood cells and other components .

Lymph from tissues and organs drains into the lymph vessels and is carried to the lymph nodes where it is filtered.

The collected lymphatic fluid is eventually returned to the blood stream via the subclavian vein.

For breast cancer patients, lymphedema might occur in the arm of the affected breast, hand, trunk, back or chest wall.

How do I get lymphedema?

Cancer treatment can affect the fluid drainage channels of the lymphatic system.

When axillary lymph nodes are removed during breast cancer surgery (with sentinel node biopsy or axillary dissection), or are treated with radiation, some of the lymph vessels can become blocked or can disappear altogether.

This blockage may prevent lymph from leaving the area and will overwhelm the remaining pathways, resulting in a backup of fluid into the tissues.

Lymphedema is a chronic condition. It does not get better with time unless detected and treated early.

The swelling might be so subtle that you can not see it but it might change overtime,  possibly leading to a larger limb/fingers.

When does lymphedema appear post treatment?

Lymphedema can appear immediately after treatment but it generally appears months or even years after the end of treatment.

Statistics on breast cancer patients getting lymphedema, average onset of lymphedema:

It is estimated that 20 to 30% of people will have lymphedema in the arm after breast cancer treatment that include  lymph node surgery and radiation to the lymph nodes.

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Next month, we will tell you what are the risk factors for developing lymphedema and what are the benefits of proactive lymphedema care. For more lymphedema info click here.


Emmanuelle Ravez Gomez is a RMT and Combined Decongestive Therapist specialized in the treatment of lymphedema at her practice The Body Mind Clinic.