One of the more common late complications of mastectomy is lymph edema swelling of the arm on the same side as the surgery. This may occur after the lymph nodes in the armpit are removed or are irradiated, so that fluid in the arm does not drain via the lymph system. Anything that increases the formation of fluid in the arm increases the risk of swelling. Lymphedema is not as common today as in the past when more radical mastectomies were performed.
Currently there are no very effective treatments for lymph edema, although frequent elevation of the affected arm and elastic sleeves, such as the pressure bandages used to treat varicose veins, sometimes help. The best advice is to avoid infections of the hand or arm, which may further hinder the drainage of the lymph fluid in the arm. Excessive exposure to the sun, tight sleeves, rings, and bracelets, and heavy work with the affected arm also may lead to increased fluid formation. Injections, vaccinations, and blood pressure tests should be done on the opposite arm. However, physicians’ opinions vary on this subject, so check with your doctor for advice about your individual situation.