It is important that several weeks and months following surgery or radiation for breast cancer, women remain vigilant about paying attention to their arm and monitoring for swelling before it becomes a problem. Lymphedema is a possible complication following surgery or radiation but doesn’t need to be if you know the signs to watch for during and after your recovery. A quick mirror check will help you notice any differences between your affected and non-affected arm.
1.) Stand in front of a mirror with arms stretched out to the side with elbows straight, and palms facing mirror. The involved arm will hang lower if swelling is present
2.) Stand in front of mirror with elbows bent at your side. Compare the size/definition of your elbows. If the elbow on the affected arm appears less bony and full, then swelling is present.
3.) Stand in front of mirror and compare knuckles on both hands. If knuckles appear less bony/defined, then swelling is present.
In addition to the mirror check there are four warning signs that frequently proceed swelling of arm. If you are aware of and watch for these signs then you can usually stop swelling from becoming an issue. Warning signs: 1.) Generalized achiness of arm, 2.) Heaviness of arm, 3.) Fatigue of arm, 4.)Tingling of arm. If you experience any of these symptoms or notice your arm looks different following a mirror check, then stop what you are doing and allow your arm to rest. If you have a compression sleeve and the swelling is not only in your hand, then put it on until the symptoms subside. Most importantly contact your physician and let him/her know about your symptoms.
Early and immediate action makes the biggest impact when stopping swelling from becoming a more permanent problem such as lymphedema. Physical therapy can help to decrease any swelling you may have in your arm, to improve your shoulder mobility, to decrease any pain and to minimize scar tissue restrictions.