10 Early Signs of Lymphoedema and What to Look for After Breast Cancer

Lymphoedema Breast Cancer

Picking up lymphoedema early is the key to managing it effectively. If you are experiencing just one, many or all of the following symptoms, please contact your breast care team or your GP, to be referred to a specialist lymphoedema service in your area.  The symptoms may occur in the affected breast or anywhere in the affected quarter of your body; chest, trunk, under arm, upper or lower arm, hand and fingers.

  1. A feeling of warmth, aching, tiredness, heaviness or discomfort anywhere on the affected quarter of the body (even before any swelling is apparent)
  2. Heaviness, tenderness, fullness or engorgement in the affected breast
  3. Swelling or puffiness in the affected, breast, trunk, back, arm or hand
  4.  Skin texture changes, becomes red or hardens
  5.  Pins and needles or shooting pains are experienced
  6.  Clothes sleeves are tighter on the affected side.
  7.  Rings, jewellery and watches no longer fit
  8. Joints at the fingers, wrist, elbow and shoulder are harder to bend due to puffiness
  9.  An indentation is left behind if skin is pressed with a finger (not always the case)
  10.  Being aware that both sides of the back are not symmetrical

Why Does Lymphoedema Happen?

The lymphatic system drains waste products and tissue fluid from the interstitium and returns it to the bloodstream. Lymphoedema occurs when the lymphatic system fails or is overloaded. This can happen when lymph nodes are removed or damaged. Often, during breast cancer surgeries (lumpectomy, mastectomy) lymph nodes are removed from under the arm (axilla) to test if cancer cells are present. These nodes drain the same side breast, arm, hand, trunk and surrounding area.

I Only Had a Sentinel Node Biopsy, Can it be Lymphoedema?....

In the past, all underarm lymph nodes were removed (axillary clearance). Nowadays, a sentinel node biopsy is done first to check before a clearance is undertaken. It was thought that using the less invasive biopsy would reduce the incidence of lymphoedema. Sadly, this is not the case. The severity of your surgery does not indicate if you will have lymphoedema or not. That is why it is so important to report any changes you feel, as soon as you become aware of them.

Help & Further Information

Lymphoedema is not curable but with appropriate management and care, the symptoms can be greatly improved and controlled using specialist compression garments and Manual Lymphatic Drainage.

For more information, please contact  Lymphoedema Support Network - LSN

I am a fully qualified lymphoedema and Manual Lymphatic Drainage specialist. If you are experiencing any symptoms mentioned in this article, please get in touch to discuss your case