Lymphedema and Breast Surgery: Things You Need to Know

Women diagnosed with breast cancer, have various advanced treatment options for cures. Sadly, even after breast cancer treatment, there are certain complications, like lymphedema. This condition is lifelong and leads to painful arm swelling on the side where you have undergone treatment. It happens due to the injury or removal of lymph nodes during the surgery or radiation therapy. Therefore, women must know about lymphedema and breast surgery.

Around 20 percent of patients with breast cancer treatment gradually form lymphedema. Unfortunately, there were not many ways earlier to address this issue. But today, the lymphedema condition has many possibilities for women patients to get the lymphedema under control and maintained.  

What is lymphedema?

This condition occurs when lymph fluid accumulates in the body because it can’t drain through the lymphatic vessels. When this occurs it often leads to swelling in the areas of build-up. There are two types of lymphedema – primary and secondary.

Primary lymphedema is something that people are born with. Generally, patients with breast cancer are at higher risk of secondary lymphedema. It happens due to blockage or damage to lymph vessels due to any other condition. Generally, the removal of the lymph node after breast surgery leads to this condition.

Since lymphedema and breast surgery are linked together, patients need to know what increases the risk of this condition. Patients who undergo the following conditions for treatment of breast cancer are at higher risk of lymphedema if the treatment procedure involved axillary lymph nodes:

  • Radiation therapy
  • Lumpectomy
  • Simple or radical mastectomy

If not treated on time, lymphedema can cause fungal or bacterial skin infections. It may even carry extra risks, including a lack of flexibility and mobility in the affected arm.

At times, it is easy to identify lymphedema. But other times, it may be hard to notice.  Here are certain symptoms of lymphedema that you may see if you have undergone breast cancer surgery:

  • Redness or pain in the hand or arm
  • Feeling as if the hand or arm is too tight, full, or heavy
  • Tighter fit for watches, rings, or shirts
  • Thickened skin on the hand or arm

Microsurgery is now an option for lymphedema.  However, you may still have to wear compression garments at times.

Also read: Lumpectomy and Shapers: Get Back Your Natural Shape

People with lymphedema may manage this condition with some conservative treatments, like:

  • Manual Lymphatic drainage therapy by a Certified Lymphatic Therapist
  • Compression bandages, sleeves, or pumps

Earlier, lymphedema surgery involved only the removal of excess fluid and tissue in the arms. However, modern techniques enable the use of treatment of lymphedema with the help of surgery, instead of only addressing the symptoms. Certain microsurgical procedures help alleviate the swelling and pain of lymphedema.

There are basically two types of lymphedema surgery: lymphovenous bypass and lymph node transfer. Both of these surgeries are effective and quite helpful for patients who are in their initial phase of lymphedema. However, these may not be too effective for patients with severe lymphedema in the long run.

Since the procedures are microsurgical, such treatment options need specialized training. It is best to look for highly experienced specialists for the treatment of this condition.

Recovery after lymphedema and breast surgery

Before surgery, it is recommended to meet a specialized lymphedema therapist for complete preoperative therapy. Undergoing therapy for four to six weeks before the surgery may help in ensuring the best results. After the surgical treatment, your care team may offer certain instructions that may include the given guidelines.

Within the first two weeks, one must:

  • Avoid lifting, pulling, or pushing over 10 pounds
  • Avoid pressure on the incision site

After two weeks, you may resume:

  • Manual lymphatic drainage
  • Lymphedema therapy after removal of drains


After four weeks, you may return to normal activity.

You are expected to see a reduction in swelling instantly after the surgery. The arm may get swelled again in the future. However, the swelling would decrease once again. So, you again have to take certain steps for managing the condition via:

  • Manual Lymph Drainage Therapy
  • Regular exercise
  • Infection prevention
  • Maintaining a healthy body mass index (BMI)

Besides these ways of recovery, patients can use breast prosthesis by a reputable and certified company, like Pink Ribbon Boutique. With the use of a custom prosthesis, it becomes easier to recover the condition without much hassle. If you are interested in such post- lymphedema and breast surgery recovery, consider looking for a high-quality prosthesis.

You can also read: How to choose the right type of mastectomy, double (DMX) or single mastectomy (SMX)?