Breast Cancer Related Lymphedema Versus Post Surgery Edema

What is Edema?

Edema is a condition characterized by an excess of watery fluid collecting in the cavities or tissues of the body. There are situations where it is hard to determine whether you have lymphedema or post-surgery edema.

Post Surgery Edema

Edema (swelling) after breast surgery can occur for several reasons, and it’s often associated with breast cancer surgery. Post surgical edema after mastectomy, implants, or flap procedures is not lymphedema. Post surgical edema is the body’s natural healing response to a disruption in the body, skin and tissues.

What Causes Edema After Breast Surgery?

The primary causes of edema after breast surgery are as follows:

Lymphatic System Damage

Breast surgery, particularly procedures like mastectomy or lymph node dissection, can disrupt the lymphatic system in the breast and surrounding areas. The lymphatic system is responsible for draining excess fluid and waste products from tissues. When this system is damaged during surgery, it can lead to impaired drainage, resulting in edema.


Lymphedema is a specific condition characterized by the accumulation of lymphatic fluid in the tissues, causing persistent swelling. Breast surgery, especially when lymph nodes are removed, can increase the risk of lymphedema in the arm and chest on the side of the surgery. This condition can contribute to significant edema.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is a common adjuvant treatment for breast cancer. While it is an essential part of cancer treatment, it can lead to various tissue reactions, including fibrosis and inflammation. These tissue changes can impede the normal drainage of fluid and contribute to edema in the breast and surrounding areas.

Inflammation and Healing

Post-surgical inflammation is a natural part of the healing process, but excessive or prolonged inflammation can lead to swelling. The body’s response to surgery and tissue trauma can cause fluid accumulation and edema in the operated breast.

Seroma Formation: Seromas are fluid-filled pockets that can develop in the surgical area following breast surgery. These seromas may contain lymphatic fluid, blood, or other fluids. When they accumulate and do not drain properly, they can result in localized swelling.

Surgical Technique

The surgical approach and techniques used can influence the risk of postoperative edema. Minimizing tissue trauma and preserving lymphatic pathways during surgery can help reduce the risk of swelling.

It’s essential to note that not all breast surgery patients will experience edema, and the severity of swelling can vary from person to person. Managing and preventing post-surgical edema may involve techniques such as compression garments, physical therapy, and lymphatic massage. Early intervention and proper postoperative care can help reduce the risk and severity of edema after breast surgery.

What is Breast Cancer Related Lymphedema (BCRL)?

Breast cancer related lymphedema is a result of impairment of the lymphatic system. Removal of just one lymph node via biopsy or dissection, could result in lymphedema of the adjacent appendage.

Breast cancer-related lymphedema (BCRL) is a chronic condition that occurs as a result of damage to or the removal of lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels during breast cancer treatment. The lymphatic system is responsible for draining excess fluid from tissues and maintaining fluid balance in the body. When this system is compromised, as can happen during breast cancer surgery or radiation therapy, it can lead to the accumulation of lymphatic fluid in the affected area, resulting in swelling and other symptoms.

Here are some key points about breast cancer-related lymphedema:

What Causes BCRL?

BCRL is primarily caused by breast cancer treatment interventions that disrupt the normal functioning of the lymphatic system. These treatments may include surgery, particularly axillary lymph node dissection or sentinel lymph node biopsy, and radiation therapy. These procedures can damage or remove lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels, hindering the drainage of lymphatic fluid from the arm, chest, or breast on the side of the cancer treatment.

BCRL Symptoms & Risk Factors

The hallmark symptom of BCRL is swelling, typically in the arm on the side of the breast surgery or radiation treatment. Other common symptoms may include a feeling of heaviness or tightness in the affected arm, discomfort or pain, limited range of motion in the arm, skin changes, and an increased susceptibility to infections. BCRL can develop immediately after breast cancer treatment or months to years later.

The risk of developing BCRL is influenced by several factors, including the extent of lymph node removal, the use of radiation therapy, the type of breast cancer surgery, obesity, and genetic predisposition.

Management and Prevention: Early detection and management are crucial in reducing the impact of BCRL. Preventive measures and lifestyle adjustments, such as protecting the arm from injury, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding blood pressure measurements or needle sticks in the affected arm, can help reduce the risk of developing BCRL. Physical therapy, specialized exercises, and compression garments can also aid in managing BCRL.

Breast Cancer Related Lymphedema (BCRL) Treatment

There is no cure for BCRL, but various treatment options can help control its symptoms and improve the patient’s quality of life. These treatments may include manual lymphatic drainage, compression therapy, exercises to stimulate lymphatic flow, and in some cases, surgery to improve lymphatic drainage. Early intervention and a comprehensive approach to care are essential to managing BCRL effectively.

Reduce Edema Pain and Swelling With LDM

Lymphatic drainage massage (LDM) therapy can help reduce edema pain and swelling with post surgical and breast cancer treatments.

A lymphatic drainage therapist is trained to manipulate your lymphatic system, redirect its original pathways, and re-educate your body on how to drain the lymphatic system differently. Therefore if you have a compromised area of the body that is having problems draining, your specialized therapist can help in many ways.

BCRL can have a significant impact on a breast cancer survivor’s physical and emotional well-being. Treatment options like manual lymphatic drainage massage can help ease your or a loved one’s pain.

Contact Our Mobile Lymphatic Drainage Massage Clinic | The Villages, Florida

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In Home or In Office Massages by Jacqueline in the Central Florida area. Certified for many different massages and treatments. Specializing in Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) post surgery recovery massage.

To schedule an appointment with Licensed Massage Therapist and Certified Advanced Manual Lymphatic Drainage Therapist, Jacqueline Bosco CMLDT, please call (813) 298-5603.   We believe nothing is more important than human touch.

Providing massage services to patients in The Villages, Florida, Ocala, Lady Lake, Fruitland Park, Leesburg, Tavares, Mount Dora, Wildwood, Bushnell, and surrounding areas.

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