How Long After Breast Cancer Can You Get Lymphedema?

Breast cancer survivors may have a higher risk of abnormal lymph node swelling
Breast cancer survivors may have a higher risk of abnormal lymph node swelling

Lymphedema in breast cancer survivors occurs due to blockage of the lymph carrying vessels after cancer therapy such as lymph node removal surgery and radiotherapy as a side effect of these treatments.

Breast cancer survivors may have a higher risk of abnormal lymph node swelling (lymphedema) in the arm, armpit, hand, breast, or torso throughout their life because there is no definite period after cancer treatment when the risk no longer exists. Around 40% of women treated for breast cancer face a lifetime risk of lymphedema after cancer treatment.

Usually, lymphedema develops within two to three years of your breast surgery. However, it may still occur years after you finish all treatment (during the months or even years after the ending of treatment). If it occurs right after your breast surgery, it may usually only last for a short period and then go away. 

It is one of the causes of daily stress and psychosocial issues in breast cancer survivors because there is no such cure for this condition. Many times, they will be unaware of this condition.

What does breast cancer mean?

Breast cancer means a disease in which the cells of your breast abnormally grow out of control. It commonly occurs in women than in men.

There are different types of breast cancer depending on the type of cells that turned cancerous (grow wildly). It may begin in different parts of your breast. However, mostly, it begins in the ducts or lobules (glands that produce milk) of your breast. Further, it may spread outside your breast through the blood vessels and lymph vessels (carries the waste products and toxins). When these breast cancer cells spread to other parts of your body, it is called metastasis.

According to the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention, women aged 50 years or more are most likely to suffer from breast cancer. However, around 11% of all new breast cancer cases in the United States were of women aged younger than 45 years.

What does lymphedema mean?

Lymph nodes are small structures that filter out harmful substances such as toxins from our body. Clear lymph fluid in the lymph nodes also contains white blood cells that fight against the infection.

Blockage into these lymph carrying vessels may cause the accumulation of lymph, which may result in swelling of the lymph nodes called as lymphedema (particularly in your arm/armpit or leg/groin area). Causes of blockage may be an infection, scar tissue formation, a  blood clot in a vein, radiation, or other cancer treatments.

Your risk of lymphedema is high if you have

  • Excessive weight.
  • Infections.
  • Trauma.
  • Certain lymphatic diseases.
  • Removal of subsequent lymph nodes.


A lump in the breast is almost always cancer. See Answer

How can you reduce the risk of lymphedema after breast cancer treatment?

If you have undergone breast cancer treatment, your doctor/oncologist/oncosurgeon may inform you about optimal self-care measures to reduce your risk of lymphedema that include

  • Optimal healthy weight control by
    • Healthy lifestyle practices such as a healthy diet.
    • Exercises.
    • Long-term physical therapy to drain the fluid from your arm or leg.
  • Using compression garments, bandages, and special lotions after breast cancer treatment.
  • Avoiding lifting of heavyweight after surgery until your oncologist/oncosurgeon suggests that you can.
  • Certain specialized massages such as manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) may help you to drain the lymphatic fluid.
  • Positioning your arm rightly on the table or cushions when you are sitting down.
  • Minimizing your risk of infection by
    • Wearing gloves while working in the garden, house, or fields.
    • Avoiding using scissors for nail cutting.
    • Using an electric razor to shave underarms.
    • Taking care while playing with pets.
    • Using insect repellents or mosquito nets to prevent insect bites.
  • Reducing your risk of sunburn or severe heat by wearing sunscreen with at least SPF 15, suitable clothes, and shades.
  • Washing the injury well if you have a cut or graze and covering it with dressing until it has healed.
  • Seeking treatment assistance by routine checkups.
  • First removing swollen lymph nodes (Sentinel) by surgery by your oncologist to stop further damage to the lymph channel.

These optimal self-care methods allow lymph drainage and reduce further inflammation and infection of the lymphatic system and repeated cellulitis. Practicing these self-care methods may reduce your financial burden due to repeated sufferings and its effect on daily quality of life including work-absenteeism and unemployment.

Even after this if you have lymphedema, your oncologist may suggest you

  • Surgery to remove the lymph nodes.
  • Radiotherapy for lymph nodes.


American cancer society

Cancer Research UK:

Breast cancer organization

World journal of clinical oncology

Johns Hopkins Medicine

Breast cancer Now, The research and care charity