For Any Cancer Diagnosis
I'm having several lymph nodes removed from under the arm—what can I expect?A.
Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped masses of tissue that are located in clusters throughout the body, including in the armpit. Lymph nodes play a crucial role in helping to fight infection; they filter and trap bacteria, viruses, and other unwanted substances in the body, so that special white blood cells (called lymphocytes) can then destroy them.
When treating cancer, doctors sometimes choose to remove and biopsy nearby lymph nodes to learn whether any of the nodes contain cancer cells. This information helps determine whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, a process known as “staging.” This information also helps the health care team decide on an appropriate and tailored treatment plan.
As with any surgical procedure, there might be side effects. You may sustain some degree of nerve damage during the procedure, resulting in tingling, numbness, or weakness in your arm. These neuropathy symptoms can be mild or more severe, depending on the extent of nerve involvement. You may experience swelling in the arm due to a build-up of lymph fluid that is no longer draining effectively through the remaining lymph nodes; this condition is called lymphedema. You may experience a temporary inflammation of blood vessels in your armpit as well as a higher potential for blood clotting and infection at the biopsy site.
If your health care team has recommended this procedure for you, it is likely because they feel that the benefits outweigh any of these potential risks. Nevertheless, it is always a good idea to have a frank discussion with your surgeon about possible side effects and any preventive measures you can take to lower your risk of experiencing them.
For more information about lymphedema, please visit The National Lymphedema Network.
To learn more about lymph node removal surgery, please visit The National Cancer Institute.
For Breast Cancer
My sister has breast cancer, and now she has lymphedema as a result of her breast removal. Her therapist wants her to get a sleeve and glove. She went to be fitted and found the cost would be about $340. Medicare nor insurance will pay anything on this. Is there any funding available for this expense?A.
For women undergoing breast cancer treatment and those in the survivorship phase, lymphedema can pose new challenges at an already difficult time. Unfortunately, despite ongoing advocacy efforts, there is minimal insurance coverage for lymphedema garments including the sleeve and gloves that your sister was encouraged to obtain. For many women, the large out of pocket expense of the garments can be a significant financial challenge. There are some resources that exist to assist women in purchasing the lymphedema supplies that they need.
CancerCare may be able to assist with a one-time grant for the purchase of lymphedema supplies. To determine eligibility, you or your sister would call our Hopeline at 800-813-4673 and speak briefly with an oncology social worker. If eligible, a brief application would be mailed to your sister for completion.
There may be other local organizations that provide assistance for lymphedema supplies. Our Hopeline social workers would be happy to explore potential resources for your sister. We can be reached Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. - 7 p.m. Eastern Time and Fridays from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. Eastern Time.