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Managing Breast Cancer Surgery Side Effects

Surgery is a common part of breast cancer treatment. Depending on the extent of the breast and lymph node surgery for your breast cancer, you may experience some side effects after treatment, including

  • Lymphedema: fluid build-up in the arm
  • Post-Mastectomy Pain Syndrome: pain in the chest or shoulder where the surgery took place
  • Shoulder stiffness: decreased shoulder range of motion

Your provider at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, will check for these conditions during follow-up appointments and work with you to ensure you have the highest quality of life possible after breast cancer treatment.

Lymphedema Prevention

Lymphedema may occur if you have lymph nodes removed as part of your breast cancer treatment. You are at risk to develop lymphedema if you had any lymph nodes removed. However, we know that the chance of developing lymphedema is high if you had a greater number of lymph nodes removed, if you receive radiation to the lymph nodes under your arm, or you are overweight.  In addition, infection in your arm may increase your risk.

To lower your risk of lymphedema, you should avoid anything that could put stress on your arm. Even small injuries, like bug bites or a splinter, could be enough to trigger lymphedema. Although, it is not known exactly how to prevent lymphedema, you can try to lower your risk with these techniques:

  • Avoid blood pressure checks or giving blood from the arm where lymph nodes were removed
  • Avoid saunas, hot tubs, or other sources of heat on the arm
  • Avoid tight clothing on the arm and underarm
  • Elevate your arm for a few days after surgery
  • Gently ease your arm back into exercise
  • Protect your arm with sunscreen
  • Use bug spray to prevent bug bites
  • Wear a compression sleeve when you fly or perform rigorous activity
  • Wear gloves when gardening

You can also help reduce symptoms of lymphedema by losing weight through diet and exercise

Lymphedema Treatment

While there is no cure for lymphedema, it is a very manageable condition. If you do experience lymphedema , a physical therapist who specializes in lymphedema can help. They will create a treatment plan to help the lymph drain and prevent lymphedema flare-ups. Your treatment plan may include:

  • Compression sleeves or bandaging to reduce swelling
  • Specialized massage techniques and education on massage techniques you can use at home
  • Guided progressive arm strengthening exercise program
  • For resistant cases, compression machines can be used to alleviate swelling 

If you have severe lymphedema that doesn’t respond to physical therapy, you can talk to your doctor about surgical treatment options. 

Post-Mastectomy Pain Syndrome (PMPS)

Post-mastectomy pain syndrome (PMPS), also called dysesthesia, can cause pain and discomfort in your surgical scar, chest, back, neck, or shoulder. Rarely, it may happen after you have a lumpectomy.

PMPS is a treatable with a comprehensive approach and early education about when to move your chest and shoulder after surgery. If you develop PMPS, your doctor may recommend some pain medicines if pain interrupts your daily life. Physical therapy can also help improve your mobility and strengthen your chest so you can continue to perform your normal activities. Your doctor will also provide education about self-management and activity modification to manage PMPS.