Lymphedema Causes in Breast Cancer Survivors



When you hear that you need breast cancer surgery, your first thought is getting the best treatment.  With your focus on cure, you might forget the talk about side effects, especially a condition called lymphedema. 

Lymphedema is the buildup of lymph fluid in the hand, arm, breast, or armpit on the same side that you had your breast cancer surgery.  Swelling, pain, and reduced movement can occur-months or years after surgery-causing more emotional upset and lower quality-of-life. 

Study clears up confusion about Lymphedema Causes

Dr. C. M.  Ferguson and colleagues at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston looked at 632 newly diagnosed breast cancer patients between 2009 and 2014.  Their study was published in the March 1 issue of the internationally recognized Journal of Clinical Oncology (J Clin Oncol 2016; 34:691-698). 

The primary goal of the study was to measure the actual risk of a number of common situations faced by breast cancer patients each and every day after surgery.  Dr. Ferguson and colleagues conclusively showed that common situations like blood draws, intravenous injections, and blood pressure readings in the same arm as the surgery are not associated with lymphedema.  Importantly, air travel and injury to the arm are also not conclusive causes of lymphedema. 

The main possible causes of lymphedema are axillary lymph node dissection surgery, lymph node radiation, cellulitis infection, and obesity. 

As a breast cancer specialist, I can now assure my breast cancer patients with real facts. The common events in their care after surgery like blood draws, blood pressure reading, and intravenous injections in the same arm appear not to be major causes for lymphedema.  Is this study practice changing?  Probably not. Many more women need to be studied and for a longer time.  But the study is a good first start. It may allow breast cancer survivors some peace in not having to worry about these routine medical procedures.

If you have any questions about your breast cancer or follow-up after breast cancer, please feel free to call me, Dr. Edward Hughes, at 855-Dayton1.