When Lymphedema Occurs After Breast Cancer Treatment

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When Lymphedema Occurs After Breast Cancer Treatment

Q: As a breast cancer survivor, I have started to notice swelling in my arm on the same side as my surgery, could that be lymphedema? What would the treatment for that include? Does it hurt?

Answered by Michele McLellan, PT, OCS, CLT

A:You may indeed be starting to develop lymphedema. One sign that you may be developing lymphedema may be if your rings are starting to be tight on that hand.

After life-saving breast cancer treatment the risk for developing lymphedema in the adjacent arm increases. Lymphedema is a type of swelling that occurs when the lymph system is altered and protein rich fluid accumulates in your arm and or chest wall. Factors that alter the lymph system’s proper functioning may include: removing the lymph nodes to stage the cancer, radiation on the remaining lymph nodes, chemotherapy, and a surgical scar as a result of removing the tumor. This excess fluid causes swelling and heaviness, decreases your motion, and puts you at risk for getting an infection such as cellulitis.

Treatment for lymphedema involves very gentle manual lymphatic drainage, compression wrapping, then a sleeve and a glove, meticulous skin care, and exercise. There is no pain involved. In fact women often find the experience to be relaxing and helps them to regain the use of their arm.

How to Find the Right Provider

The Vodder School of North America has a website that lists therapists who are certified to treat lymphedema. Another advocacy group the National Lymphedema Network (NLN) recommends that your therapist has had at least 135 hours of training. The credentials that could be after your therapist’s name are CLT (Certified Lymphedema Therapist) or LANA (Lymphedema Association of North America), which means they passed an extra test to prove they have a comprehensive knowledge base for treating lymphedema, particularly if the person is a cancer survivor.


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Michele McLellan PT, OCS, CLT
Michele McLellan, PT, OCS, CLT began her physical therapy career in 1983. With her passion and determination to provide the best services possible, Michele passed extra boards to become an Orthopedic Clinical Specialist (OCS), a distinction only 4% of physical therapists in Virginia have achieved. In 1999 she became a Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT) and acquires re-certification every 2 years with 2015 being her 8th time to do such advanced training. To read Michele's complete bio, click here.