The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2014 there will be about 232,570 new cases of invasive breast cancer and 40,000 deaths in the U.S. Breast cancer has become the most common cancer among women, and the second leading cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer.
In recent years I’ve known at least a dozen women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Perhaps you also know someone who’s fighting for her life from this dreadful disease. Going through breast cancer treatments is by no means easy. It can be extremely emotional, and physically and mentally demanding.
Currently the standard treatments for breast cancer include surgery, then perhaps radiation, hormonal (anti-estrogen) therapy, and/or chemotherapy. There are varying side effects from these treatments. In this post, I’ll share one of the common risk factors from surgery: lymphedema.
Surgery is usually the first line of attack against breast cancer. This may involve the removal of the tumor and a small amount of surrounding tissue (lumpectomy) or the removal of all of the breast tissue (mastectomy). If the biopsy shows that breast cancer has spread outside the milk duct, the doctor may also perform an axillary lymph node dissection: removal of the lymph nodes under the arms.
As we know, the primary jobs of the lymphatic system are to isolate and fight infections, and to absorb excess fluid, fat and debris from our bodies. If the lymph nodes are removed or damaged as a part of the cancer treatment, a blockage in the lymphatic system can result. And the blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining well, leading to fluid buildup and swelling.
Common symptoms of lymphedema include:
- Swelling of part or all of the arm or leg, including fingers or toes
- A feeling of heaviness or tightness
- Restricted range of motion
- Aching or discomfort
- Recurring infections
- Hardening and thickening of the skin (fibrosis)
Lymphedema caused by cancer treatment may not occur until months or years after treatment. It can be mild or extremely debilitating. Currently, there’s no cure for lymphedema. But it can be managed with early diagnosis and diligent care of the affected limb.
If you know someone who’s suffering from lymphedema, learning more about this condition can help you understand her situation and support her, emotionally and physically. Below are some resources where you can find more information.