Lymphedema

Based on recent studies, lymphedema, or swelling in the hand, arm, breast or chest wall following treatment for breast cancer can occur in 8-66% of patients.  The high degree of variability is likely related to a concept which has recently been elucidated.  One researcher found that as many as 60% of women who develop lymphedema have acute lymphedema (lasting no more than 5 months).  The other women had chronic and persistent lymphedema.  This would seem to suggest that treatment for lymphedema shouldn’t be started until after 5 months.  The problem is this.  The patient who presents with mild lymphedema is at (up to 3 times) increased risk for developing moderate to severe lymphedema.  We also know that the more quickly treatment for lymphedema is initiated the more favorable the outcome.

There is widespread ignorance about development of lymphedema and exercise and activity.  In the past, patients following breast cancer treatment were encouraged to limit exercise and use of the operative arm.  Results from exercise intervention studies involving women with lymphedema, highlight the need for encouragement rather than avoidance of participation in physical activity after breast cancer.  Research has even shown that participation in exercise may prevent the development of lymphedema.