Lymphedema after Breast Cancer

What is Lymphedema?

Lymph is a natural fluid in the body.  In basic terms, it is what is left over from the arteries delivering blood to all of the parts of the body and the veins taking the blood away.  The resulting fluid is taken up by specialized channels, the lymphatics.  The lymphatics deliver the fluid to the lymph nodes, and ultimately back into the blood stream. 

As many as 10 million Americans suffer from lymphedema, which causes swelling in arms, legs or other parts of the body. It can be a frustrating and chronic long-term condition.  Often, it is a side effect of cancer treatment through removal of lymph nodes.  Lymphedema is a chronic condition caused by lymphatic fluid accumulating in the tissues. It may occur any time after treatment for breast cancer, particularly following mastectomy and lymph node removal.  Lymphedema results in swelling, pain, decreased mobility, susceptibility to recurrent infections, and more.

For people who were treated for breast cancer, lymphedema may occur in the breast, chest, and/or arm. The first signs of lymphedema include swelling or a feeling of fullness in an arm or leg. Early intervention is paramount, as treatment options are less effective the longer the condition exists. 

Treatments for Lymphedema following Breast Cancer

The University of Michigan Health System offers both surgical and non-surgical treatment options for lymphedema.

Non-Surgical Treatments

Our team of specialists includes occupational therapists, physical therapists, and massage therapists that are certified to treat lymphedema (CLT). Our Lymphedema Clinic provides complete decongestive therapy that includes:

  • Skin Care
  • Education about Lymphedema and Risk Reduction Principles
  • Exercise and elevation
  • Stretching and deep breathing to help decrease swelling
  • Lymphatic massage to the affected areas, helping to move excess fluid to healthy tissue.
  • Low stretch compression bandaging
  • Scar management
  • The use of sequential pumps when appropriate
  • The use of low level lasers to decrease inflammation and improve tissue health
  • (Custom-fit) After limb reduction fitting with compression garments to increase tissue pressure and keep the swelling down.

For patients who do not respond completely to conservative treatment measures, referral to a plastic surgeon for surgical treatment options is indicated.

How do I make an appointment with a Certified Lymphedema Therapist?

Patients require a physician’s referral to be seen by a Certified Lymphedema Therapist. Lymphedema services are offered at several convenient locations in Canton and Ann Arbor.

Schedule an appointment by calling 734-936-7070.