Your body has a system of canals—tissues, lymphatic vessels, and organs—through which fluid flows. It’s known as the lymphatic system, which is an integral part of the immune system.
The lymphatic system transports a clear, watery fluid known as lymph that contains the nutrients, proteins, and minerals the body needs. Through the system’s collection ducts—lymph nodes—damaged cells, cancer cells, bacteria, and viruses are filtered out and carried away. But, sometimes there is damage to or blockage along the canal system that keeps lymph from flowing normally. When this happens, lymphedema—the build-up of fluid in the soft tissues of the body—occurs, causing uncomfortable swelling in the arms, legs, and other areas of the body.
“Despite our best efforts, lymphedema remains a risk after breast cancer surgery,” says Brigid Killelea, MD, section chief of breast surgery at Yale Medicine. “Lymphedema can not only be physically uncomfortable but also cause patients to feel self-conscious. Physical therapy with a lymphedema specialist is the mainstay of treatment.”