Introduction to Lymphedema Branch

What is lymphedema? Lymphedema is:
  • Extra fluid in your arm(s) or leg(s) where you had any lymph nodes removed or damaged
  • A side effect from having lymph nodes removed during surgery
  • A side effect from the doctor taking out some of your lymph nodes
  • A chronic condition
  • Not curable
  • Manageable for most people
How soon does it happen? Lymphedema may occur:
  • Not at all to you
  • Immediately after your cancer treatment
  • 1 to 2 years after your cancer treatment
  • Many years after your cancer treatment
  • After your treatment, but started
    • Because of an insect bite or some other minor injury
    • After a lot of physical activity
    • After a plane trip
NOTE: Once lymph nodes are removed, you may get lymphedema at any time for the rest of your life

What are lymph nodes? Lymph nodes:
  • Are small glands
  • Help drain fluids from your arms and legs
  • Help keep good fluid balance in your arms and legs
  • Get rid of
    • Infections (like harmful bacteria)
    • Waste materials (waste happens even when cells act normally)
    • Poisons in your body (like from medications)
  • So many new words are used that most people don't understand a lot of what is happening to them. The lymph nodes help fluids to drain from your arm. They are important in fighting infections

Cyndi Thornton
(Western Cherokee)
Dx 1990 Breast Cancer

"But the thing that I wasn't ready for was the 17 lymph nodes that they had to remove along with my breast. And I said OK, what does a lymph node do anyway? What do I need it for?"

to play Video Vignette - click audio only

What is the lymph system?
  • It is small tubes (like blood vessels) that are in your body tissues. These tubes lie alongside your blood vessels.
  • It contains infection-fighting white blood cells called lymphocytes.
  • Lymph nodes are small glands that help balance fluids and get rid of waste materials.
  • The lymph system also includes the spleen, thymus and bone marrow (Marion and Potts, Choices 2003, pp. 697, 196, 197, 422, 423)

Where are lymph nodes in my body?

Printed with permission from Morra and Potts, Choices . 2003 p. 698

How many lymph nodes do most people have in their entire body?
  1. About 50
  2. Between 51 and 100
  3. Between 101 and 300
  4. Between 301 and 500
  5. Between 501 and 700
  6. Don't know / Not sure

Click for: Answer

Why do I need lymph nodes or the lymph system?
  • To help prevent infections and injury
  • To help fluids drain from your arms and legs
Why is lymphedema a problem?The lymph fluid:
  • Is not able to drain from your arms
  • May contain bacteria or wastes that stay in your arm(s) or leg(s) (soft tissues).
  • When bacteria and wastes stay in your tissues (rather than draining away), they have time to grow and become infections.
  • Causes pressure that may also cause pain
Why did the surgeon take some of my lymph nodes out?
  • The providers need to look at your lymph nodes to see if they have any cancer cells in them
  • If they see cancer cells in one or more lymph nodes:
    • Then your cancer may have spread to other parts of your body
    • The type of treatment you get will be different from someone else who does not have cancer cells in their lymph nodes
How did the provider damage some of my lymph nodes?
  • The lymph nodes are very small. It is easy for the surgeon to accidentally cut a lymph node or damage one during surgery
  • Radiation can also damage the lymph nodes
When are lymph nodes removed?
  • Lymph nodes may be removed at the time of the first biopsy. Other times lymph nodes are looked at or removed after receiving the biopsy results.

  • Ruth Demitt
    Dx 1985 Breast Cancer

    "In August they did a biopsy and we find out it was breast cancer. It was located by the nipple... Then a couple of weeks later they did a biopsy on the lymph nodes and had to take three out and one of them was positive."

    to play Video Vignette - click audio only

  • Sometimes things happen so fast you may not even realize what is happening.

  • Mary Lou Davis
    Dx 1993 Breast Cancer

    "Then I went back five days later and they removed the fifteen lymph nodes and glands, and that was the way it happened, and it all happened so fast, it was kind of a surprise."

    to play Video Vignette - click audio only

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