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  • Writer's pictureAriela Liberman

Swelling After Breast Cancer Treatment? It Could Be Lymphedema

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month! It's important to not only know the signs and symptoms of breast cancer in order to catch it early, but to also be aware of resources that can help with long-term effects after breast cancer treatment.

A common side effect of many breast cancer treatments includes lymphedema, or swelling due to a build-up of lymph in the body. If you or anyone you know has experienced swelling in the hands, arms, chest, underarm or breast after breast cancer treatment, it could be lymphedema.

However, there are resources to help with the long-term effects of breast cancer treatment, such as Manual Lymphatic Drainage.

woman checking her breast. post breast cancer treatment swelling

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition in which swelling occurs in the body due to a blockage in the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system helps to recapture the fluid in your body that escapes the blood capillaries during normal circulation, and it also drains your body of unwanted toxins and waste. Lymphedema occurs when there is an issue in the system, causing a build-up of fluid. This can happen after surgery, trauma, or radiation; however, it is most common in those who have had breast cancer treatment.

What Are Lymphedema Symptoms?

  • Swelling that does not resolve with rest or elevation of your limbs

  • Your arms or hands are different sizes

  • A feeling of heaviness in the arms, chest or breast

  • Tight, dry, or itchy skin

  • Hardness or firmness (fibrosis)

What Causes Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is caused primarily by surgery, trauma, or radiation, but we will specifically focus on these causes regarding breast cancer treatment.

Breast Cancer Surgery

There are a few different options for breast cancer surgery, one being a lumpectomy and the other a mastectomy. A lumpectomy removes only the cancerous tissue in the breast and sometimes one or more lymph nodes from the axilla (armpit), while a mastectomy removes most or all of the breast and also the affected lymph nodes from the axilla. A lumpectomy is often followed by radiation and a mastectomy is often followed by breast reconstruction surgery and other treatments such as radiation or chemotherapy if needed.

In breast cancer surgery, the removal of the associated lymph nodes and the accompanying damage to lymph vessels and other nearby lymph nodes pose the greatest risk factor to developing lymphedema.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to damage or kill cancer cells. This treatment can be done alone or in conjunction with surgery. Radiation therapy is another cause of lymphedema due to damage or scarring to the lymphatic system.

How to Treat Lymphedema

Although there is no cure for lymphedema, there are a few different treatment options, including elevation, a combination of exercise and compression bandages (known as Complete Decongestive Therapy), Manual Lymphatic Drainage, and surgery as a last resort.

Manual Lymphatic Drainage for Lymphedema

Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) is a manual therapy technique that moves fluid in the body into and through the lymphatic system to relieve congestion. This method focuses on the lymphatic vessels, using directed pressure to assist the movement of fluid. Uniquely different from traditional massage strokes, MLD aims to lightly stretch the skin to allow the lymphatic system to recapture the fluid from the surrounding tissues.

This is a common postoperative treatment, especially in those who have undergone breast cancer surgery or therapies to help move the swelling past the areas where the lymph system has been damaged. Manual lymphatic drainage is able to direct the excess fluid to alternative lymphatic vessels to bypass the areas where lymph nodes have been removed and therefore is an effective treatment for reducing the swelling and aiding in the healing process.

manual lymphatic drainage. Hands of a massage therapist kneading a leg.

Interested in a Manual Lymphatic Drainage Massage?

Our sister brand, Resolve Wellness, offers manual lymphatic drainage! Our massage therapists are fully trained in maximizing the efficiency of the lymphatic system, from addressing post-surgical swelling to a long-standing diagnosis of Lymphedema. If you're interested in a manual lymphatic drainage massage and its benefits, request an appointment!


Ariela Liberman is a Marketing Associate and a staff writer for Rehab United, with a Bachelor of Arts in Media Studies. Born and raised in San Diego, she is a Southern California native with a passion for writing, digital marketing, health, and wellness.

Reviewed By Erynne Hill, MS, ATC, HHP, BFRC, a Nationally Certified Athletic Trainer and Massage Therapist who has been a part of the healthcare field since 2002. She is the Director of Massage & Wellness here at Rehab United, specializing in Manual Lymphatic Drainage and Prenatal Massage. Erynne has extensive knowledge of both massage and physiology, even receiving her Master's degree in Exercise Physiology from San Diego State University.

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