Secondary lymphedema of the arm following surgery for breast cancer

In many cases, the treatment of breast cancer requires the removal of lymph nodes. This surgical intervention often causes damage to the lymphatic system which compromises its effectiveness in draining fluids.

Fluids are no longer drained or are drained insufficiently. 

Radiotherapy also affects the lymphatic system and its effectiveness. The imbalance between lymphatic load and lymph transport capacity following breast cancer surgery may result in a so-called secondary (=acquired) arm lymphedema. However, there are also cases of such edema – which is rarely painful – occurring in the chest. 

In Western countries, the most common cause of secondary lymphedema is cancer surgery including removal and/or radiation of lymph nodes. The likelihood of edema formation diminishes as the post-operative period increases. To reduce the chances of developing lymphedema, patients need to follow very specific rules.If, however, a lymphedema does develop, it will require lifelong therapy. The treatment schedule will depend on the course of the disease. If left untreated, lymphedema will progress in most cases and can assume monstrous proportions (elephantiasis). 

Lymphedema frequently does not occur immediately after surgery but appears months or sometimes even years later.

In such cases please consult your doctor so that he/she can make the necessary examinations to exclude the possibility that another tumor has developed.

After many years of experience in this area we regret to have to say: “Once an edema, a lifetime of edema." There is no known cure for lymphedema, but it is possible to manage and control the symptoms through consistent treatment and strict observance of precautionary rules.