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What to Watch For


You’ll probably feel some pain after your surgery. This is normal.

Take your pain medicine as directed. If the medicine is upsetting your stomach, stop taking it and call your surgeon’s office.

You may have numbness, burning, or tingling in your chest, shoulder, or arm. These feelings usually get better or go away over time.

If you’re concerned about pain that doesn’t stop or anything else you feel, talk to your doctor or nurse.

Seroma (a build up of fluid)

A seroma is swelling caused by fluid building up in or around your incision area (in the breast or armpit). This is normal and may feel like a lump a few days after surgery. The lump can grow to feel like a golf ball or egg. In most cases, the fluid will absorb over time.

If the lump is large enough and it’s causing you pain, your surgeon may drain the fluid with a small needle.

Axillary Web Syndrome (Cording)

In the weeks after surgery you may have pain that feels like a tight cord running from your armpit down your arm. Sometimes this tight cord will go as far as your wrist. It looks like cords under the skin and can be painful. It might be hard to reach for objects above you, lift your arm, or straighten your elbow. Ask for a referral to a physiotherapist who can give you daily stretching exercises. Cording usually goes away on its own over time. Doing stretching exercises can prevent it. Ask for a referral to a physiotherapist who can give you daily stretching exercises.

Swelling (Lymphedema)

Lymphedema is swelling of the arm or hand that can happen any time after lymph node surgery, even many years later. The swelling can be mild (e.g., your watch feels a bit tight) or more obvious and need treatment. Lymphedema may be temporary or permanent.

Lymphedema is more common after an axillary lymph node dissection and less common after a sentinel lymph node biopsy.

If you have had a sentinel lymph node biopsy you don’t need to take any special precautions.

If you have had an axillary lymph node dissection, there are some things you can do that may lower your risk of lymphedema:

  • Look after your skin. Use a moisturizer daily. When it's possible, try not to injure the skin on your surgical side(s) (e.g., cuts, burns, sunburns, insect bites) by wearing clothing and gloves for protection.
  • Look for signs of infection in your hand or arm. Infection can lead to lymphedema in people with a risk for developing it. If you notice skin redness, swelling, or heat in your hand or arm on your surgical side(s), contact your healthcare provider right away.
  • Keep pressure off your arm. Try to avoid having blood drawn or your blood pressure checked on the side of your surgery. If you’ve had a bilateral axillary lymph node dissection, try to switch between arms for blood work and blood pressure monitoring.
  • Don’t wear tight-fitting jewelry or clothing on the hand or arm of your surgical side(s).
  • Try not to carry a heavy bag on the side of your surgery. If you need to carry something heavier, try using a bag or basket with wheels to lighten the load on your shoulder.
  • Do the follow-up exercises that you got after surgery from your healthcare team. These exercises are to help you start moving your upper body more easily. They can also help lower the risk for lymphedema.
  • Stay at a healthy body weight. If you’re overweight, you have a higher chance of lymphedema.
  • Try to be active. Exercise lowers the risk of lymphedema, but doing too much exercise too quickly can also cause lymphedema. Exercise carefully by doing a little more exercise every day. Take lots of rest breaks and pay attention to how your body feels.

If you’re worried about swelling in your arm or hand, talk to your doctor and ask for a referral to a physiotherapist. It’s best to know the signs of lymphedema so you can get treatment right away. Lymphedema is easier to manage if you get help early.​​​​

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