Arm swelling common among young breast cancer patients

COLUMBUS , Ohio The good news is that there are nearly two million breast cancer survivors in the United States , and survival rates continue to increase for patients with this disease. But the flip side is that survival can present its own set of little-known complications.

Researchers found that slightly more than half of 580 women diagnosed with breast cancer in one study experienced swelling, or lymphedema, in their arms or hands after the surgical removal of the breast or the tumor.

This swelling was persistent among nearly one-third of the women. Women with lymphedema reported their quality of life as lower than did women without the problem.

"Women don't know about lymphedema," said Electra Paskett, the study's lead author and a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics in the School of Public Health at Ohio State University .

"When a breast cancer survivor has swelling in her arm, she may immediately think that her cancer has come back," she continued. "And the swelling, which may occur at any time, is a constant reminder of having had cancer."

For most women, the swelling takes place on the same side of the body as the affected breast. And it's generally not a sign of cancer's recurrence, Paskett said.

Lymphedema can be painful, as the arm becomes fluid-filled, heavy and stiff and the skin becomes tight. Affected patients may have problems using their arms or hands. They also often need to buy clothes that are otherwise too big in order to fit the swollen limb.

Lymphedema is caused by a build-up of lymphatic fluid. The lymphatic system serves as a source of immune cells and includes organs and tissues such as bone marrow, the spleen, and lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small, round masses of tissue that filter lymphatic fluid and can also trap cancer or bacteria cells that flow through the blood.

Removing or sampling the lymph nodes during surgery is fairly common, as they can serve as a condu

Contact: Electra Paskett
Ohio State University

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