Some breast cancer patients may need lymph node surgery. Lymph node surgery is performed for staging purposes to find out whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm (axillary lymph nodes). One or more lymph nodes may be removed for examination under a microscope in one of two ways:  an axillary lymph node dissection or a sentinel lymph node biopsy.

Side Effects of Lymph Node Surgery

The possible side effects of lymph node surgery include

  • Swelling
  • Pain/tingling sensations/numbness
  • Bleeding
  • Infection
  • Fluid collections
  • Lymphedema

Lymphedema is more common in women who have undergone an axillary lymph node dissection than a sentinel lymph node biopsy. For some, the swelling may only be temporary, but for others lymphedema can cause long-term swelling, tightness, and/or pain. Patients experiencing any of the symptoms of lymphedema after lymph node surgery should notify their cancer care team immediately. Physical therapy can help lessen the symptoms of lymphedema.