Q: What should I do to avoid swelling of the arm after having undergone breast cancer surgery?


A: Following breast cancer surgery and even after several months, there may be a significant accumulation or stagnation of fluid (lymph) in the arm. This condition is known as lymphedema and it is caused by the obstruction of lymphatic drainage pathways present in the arm and armpit.

There are a few simple steps that you can take to avoid/prevent difficulties. They include the following:


  • During the first month after surgery, the arm should not be exposed to prolonged effort or heavy household chores such as washing windows or ironing for many hours
  • Exercise or play an sport to help return venous and lymphatic circulation, however, avoid strenuous activities and repetitive movements of the operated arm
  • Do not carry excessive weights for a longer period of time and avoid lifting bags or putting bag straps on the operated arm and shoulder
  • Always wear a bra, preferably of natural fibers, that has wide straps to avoid the formation of leashes on the shoulder and that offers support without constraints. Avoid bras that are too tight or have under wires
  • Avoid wearing clothing and elastic sleeves that are too tight
  • Avoid wearing a watch, bracelets or rings that are too tight
  • Do not measure your blood pressure on the operated arm and avoid vaccinations, infusions or blood tests
  • Do not expose the arm to thermal shock, avoid hot baths or hot environments (not even for spa pools, mud pools or saunas) for an extended period of time as well as excessive exposure to heat or the sun (if necessary, expose yourself gradually and not during the hottest hours, and also use a sunscreen with a high protection factor). Even extreme cold should be avoided because it may trigger slowdown in circulation
  • Use daily moisturizer to prevent excessive dryness of the skin on the arm and the consequent risk of injury
  • For armpit hair removal, it is recommended to use an electric razor (compared to waxing, depilatory creams and regular razor)
  • Always wear protective gloves while doing household chores, taking care of pets and gardening. In case of accidental wounds, burns, scratches or bites from pets or insects, thoroughly disinfect the area
  • While seated or during bedtime, do not hold your arm over your head and avoid sleeping on the side of the operated arm. Instead, keep the arm elevated from the rest of the body by resting it on a pillow
  • While standing or sitting, do not let the arm hang for a longer period time against the body. Actively move it around or keep it elevated by resting it on a pillow
  • Try not to gain weight