What is Lymphedema, and Who is at Risk?
Lymphedema is a preventable condition that may affect people who have undergone certain kinds of cancer treatment.  A woman who is in treatment for breast cancer is at risk for developing lymphedema when she has had a lymph node biopsy (also called a ‘sentinel node biopsy’), or a chain of lymph nodes surgically removed during lumpectomy or mastectomy.  There is also a risk associated with radiation therapy, if the radiation was applied to the underarm or outer chest wall.

Lymphedema is Caused by a Compromised Lymphatic System 
The lymphatic system is responsible for collecting and processing lymphatic fluid, which is made of water, protein, and cell debris within the body.  The lymph nodes filter this fluid as it passes along the lymph pathways.  Hundreds of lymph nodes are located all throughout the body, but the largest groups are found in the neck, underarms, abdomen, and groin. When lymph nodes are surgically removed or radiated, they are unable to repair themselves, and their absence can cause a blockage in the pathway.  Lymphedema is the accumulation of the blocked fluid in the affected area, causing mild to severe swelling, discomfort, decreased function, and an increased risk of infection.

Prevention and Treatment
Prevention and early diagnosis are critical for those who are at risk.  Lymphedema can occur very rapidly, and it responds best to treatment in the earliest stages.  The treatment for mild to moderate (Stage 1 and 2) lymphedema usually consists of bandaging, exercises, gentle massage, nutritional counseling, training in preventive behaviors, and strict hygiene practices for proper infection control.  In the later stages, the condition may require corrective surgery. Please refer to the for more information.

Where Can I Find Out More?
There are many valuable resources for breast cancer survivors who need information or treatment options for lymphedema.  Please refer to the list of resources available on the .  Most importantly, if you are at risk for developing this condition, or have already been affected, be sure to consult with your doctor.  With education and vigilance, you will be able to prevent or treat lymphedema, and raise your overall quality of life after cancer treatment.

March 2013

Nicole Morris, LMT/CMLDT is a Licensed Massage Therapist practicing Oncology Massage and Manual Lymph Drainage in Birmingham, AL.  Contact her with questions or comments at