10 Ways to Reduce Lymphedema Risk After Breast Cancer Treatment

In a perfect world, you would hear about the risk of lymphedema before cancer treatment. But not everyone does, even though cancer patients, especially breast cancer patients, are at a high risk of developing the condition.

Lymphedema causes parts of the body, usually the parts of the body near the treatment site, to become swollen and inflamed. For breast cancer patients, it’s common to develop lymphedema in the hands, arms, or shoulder area.

When the lymphatic system is damaged because of radiation or the surgical removal of lymph nodes, lymph fluid can no longer move effectively through the body, and it builds up and causes swelling. Risk for developing lymphedema is between 15 to 46 percent for breast cancer patients, though some estimates are closer to 50 percent.

Ask your care team about your risk for lymphedema, and work to avoid lymphedema by using these 10 risk-reducing strategies:

1. Get Loose

Avoid clothes or undergarments that squeeze or pinch the chest and arms, and don’t wear snug-fitting watches or jewelry. These items can restrict flow of the lymph fluid and encourage swelling. If only one side of your body was affected by treatment, try wearing bracelets and rings on the opposite side.

Make sure your bras fit properly, and if you wear a prothesis, find one that doesn’t squeeze. Stay loose and go with the flow!

2. Protect Yourself

The lymphatic system is a part of the immune system and the lymph nodes swell in response to infection. Any cut or scrape can allow bacteria to enter the body and trigger a lymphatic swelling, but remember a damaged lymph system is less able to then drain the fluid and bring swelling back down to normal levels. Avoid cuts and scrapes by:

  • Wearing protective gloves when washing dishes, gardening, or prepping food (anything that puts you at risk for cuts).
  • If you shave your underarms, try a hair-removal cream or an electric razor instead.
  • If you need to get blood drawn, ask to have it drawn from the unaffected arm or another part of your body.
  • If you get manicures, ensure that your salon uses sanitary practices to avoid infections.
  • If you get a cut or scrape, wash the area promptly with soap and use an antibacterial ointment. Watch the area carefully and talk to your doctor if you notice swelling or signs of infection.

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Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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