Did you know that according to the National Cancer Institute (cancer.gov), 12.9 percent of women in the US will develop breast cancer in their lifetime? That equates to roughly 1 in 8 women. Fortunately, with advanced treatments and continued research, the 5- year survival rate is improving. Today, a person diagnosed with breast cancer has a five-year survival rate of over 90 percent. A side effect of breast cancer treatment is Lymphedema. However, with the development of improved treatments, the chances of Lymphedema following treatment has significantly decreased. According to Komen.org, less than 5 percent of women will develop Lymphedema following a sentinel node biopsy and 10-20 percent following axillary node dissection.

Before we discuss Lymphedema, it is essential to understand the function of the lymphatic system and why it must function optimally to decrease the chance of developing Lymphedema.

What is the lymphatic system?

Many people are familiar with the arterial and venous systems. Still, a third circulatory system plays a role that is just as important in keeping our bodies functioning efficiently. The lymphatic system removes excess proteins, waste products, bacteria, dead cells, and viruses in the fluids throughout the body. It plays an important role in regulating illness and immunity.

Lymph vessels are located throughout the body and move moving fluid throughout the body and to the lymph nodes. Although lymph nodes are Tstrategically scattered throughout the body, large concentrations of lymph nodes in the neck, chest, armpits, abdomen, and groin. The primary role of the lymph nodes is to filter body fluids, eliminate unhealthy substances, and return the cleaned fluids to the circulatory system.

Lymphedema can occur at other locations throughout the body from different causes. This article will address the relationship between Lymphedema and breast cancer.


What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema occurs when there is damage to the lymph nodes or lymph vessels, rendering them ineffective in removing harmful substances in fluid form from the body. These fluids then accumulate and cause swelling in the affected region. Additionally, lymph nodes remove many harmful dead or abnormal cells, viruses, and excess proteins. This type of fluid concentration is unhealthy and can become a breeding ground for disease.

One of the causes of Lymphedema following a breast cancer diagnosis is secondary to breast surgery, either a lumpectomy or mastectomy with lymph node removal. Radiation therapy can also damage the lymph nodes. Each set of lymph nodes is responsible for clearing a designated area. If there is removal or damage to the chest and or underarm lymph nodes, the area of swelling will most likely be the arm, chest, or neck only on that side. It is important to note that we are focusing on Lymphedema secondary to breast cancer treatment; however, it can occur in almost any region in the body for various reasons.


How do I know I have Lymphedema?

When treated early, Lymphedema is easier to manage. It is essential to realize the signs and symptoms to improve treatment outcomes.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Tightness or heaviness in the arm, chest, or breast region
  • Pain or redness of the skin
  • Swelling of the arm, hand, or breast area


Is there any treatment for Lymphedema?

Once you notice any swelling following treatment, you must act quickly to maintain control. The most optimal situation is to begin treatment measures as soon as possible. The longer there is swelling without intervention, the greater possibility that the swelling will continue and become more challenging to control. Your physician will refer you for treatment with a health professional trained explicitly in lymphedema therapy. 

Treatment can include:

  • Manual Lymph Drainage
  • Education and skincare
  • Compression bandaging
  • Compression garments
  • Exercises
  • Pneumatic compression pump

Following an evaluation, your provider can assess the appropriate course of intervention that will help you manage your symptoms. Look for a Certified Lymphedema Therapist; they have been through extensive training for lymphedema management.

There are several resources for more information, such as:

National Lymphedema Network (www.lymphnet.org)

Lymphedema can be serious if not treated properly. If you have any concerns or questions, please contact your healthcare provider, no matter how small. This article is not a subs

Be sure to consult your physician if you are experiencing any abnormal symptoms or swelling following breast cancer treatment.

If you’re struggling with bladder leakage and/or urge incontinence and accidents, I invite you to check out my signature program, STOP WORRYING ABOUT BLADDER LEAKS, and schedule your free consultation today. I’ve successfully helped hundreds of women treat urinary incontinence – and can help you discover the tools to stop leaking and start living life again without worry.








Shelia Craig Whiteman
Shelia Craig Whiteman

Dr. Shelia Craig Whiteman DPT, CLT is a doctor of physical therapy and a health coach. While practicing physical therapy, she specialized in pelvic health, lymphedema, and oncology. As a health coach, Dr. Shelia is particularly passionate about helping women to reduce and stop bladder leaks.

She is the best-selling author of “To Pee or Not To Pee?” The Guide for Reducing and Eliminating Urinary Incontinence. Her second book, Stop Worrying About Bladder Leaks, further explains how and why bladder leaks can happen. As an advocate for health and wellness, she participates in several educational presentations and volunteer activities in her community.

Dr. Shelia is a certified fitness instructor and has taught fitness and pilates classes over the past 20 years. She lives with her family in Mitchellville, Maryland.

Watch Dr. Shelia’s video on Bladder Leaks here: