Preventing Arm Swelling After Breast Cancer Surgery and Radiation

Swelling of the arm on the side of your breast cancer surgery can be due to lymph nodes under the arm being removed or changed by radiation of the armpit.

After an injury anywhere in the body, lymph fluid will rush to the injured site to carry away bacteria and any foreign substances. If that injured area is on a hand or arm where you have had surgery and radiation, the lymph fluid will have a harder time being absorbed normally because surgery has removed some of the channels that would have carried the fluid. Radiation can close down some of those lymph channels also. Once surgery and radiation are complete, the focus should be on preventing injury and stress to the affected hand, shoulder and arm to lower the chance of lymph fluid causing swelling of the arm. If you are a person who has had armpit surgery to test lymph nodes for cancer cells, or if you have received radiation to the armpit, you may want to think about ways to prevent arm swelling.

  • Avoid infection
  • Avoid injury
  • Avoid constriction or tightness
  • Avoid muscle strain

Avoid infection

  • Treat even small injuries/hangnails with care. Wash the injury with soap and water, apply antibiotic ointment, then cover with a band-aid.
  • Keep skin of the hand and arm clean and moisturized. Apply moisturizing lotion several times a day to prevent skin from cracking.

Avoid injury

  • Do not have blood drawn from the affected arm, unless absolutely necessary.
  • Wear long oven mitts whenever putting hands in an oven. Have someone else get dishes out of the oven when possible.
  • Carefully cook foods in oil to avoid splashing of hot grease onto hands.
  • Use rubber gloves when cleaning with harsh cleaners.
  • Wear rubber gloves when doing dishes.
  • Wear canvas gloves while gardening and doing yard work.
  • Wear a thimble while sewing.
  • Shave underarms with an electric razor. Avoid chemical hair removers.
  • Use insect repellant to protect against bug bites or bee stings.
  • Avoid sunburn by using sunscreen with SPF of at least 15. Reapply sunscreen after swimming and as directed on the sunscreen label.
  • Don’t allow injections or vaccinations on the affected arm.
  • Do not have manicures on the affected hand. Do not cut cuticles or hangnails.
  • Don’t hold a cigarette in the affected hand.

Avoid constriction or tightness

  • Avoid clothing with elastic sleeve bands or with tight arms.
  • Don’t wear a watch or rings on affected arm.
  • Avoid carrying a heavy purse or bag with the affected arm.
  • Have blood pressure taken on the unaffected arm, if possible.
  • Underclothing, such as bras, should not leave pressure marks.
  • When traveling in a car or plane for long distances, keep the affected arm above the level of the heart, if at all possible.

Avoid muscle strain

  • Avoid heavy lifting if your muscles are not used to heavy lifting.
  • Avoid vigorous, repetitive movements such as scrubbing, pulling, hammering.
  • Use caution not to over use your arm during sports such as tennis, racquetball and golf.
  • Begin any new exercise/activity involving the arms slowly and with caution.

Other hints

  • Pressure changes in an airplane cabin may contribute to arm swelling. As a precaution, contact your therapist or doctor about getting a compression sleeve before air travel.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking causes your blood vessels to get smaller which can slow flow of fluid
  • Avoid hot baths, showers, saunas, hot-tubs, or steam baths.
  • Don’t drink alcohol. Alcohol makes blood vessels dilate and leak fluid into body tissues.
  • Avoid changing from very hot to cold water when bathing or doing household chores.

Source: UI Cancer Information Service