Women who have had lymph nodes removed in connection with breast cancer surgery are often warned that flying in an airplane can cause dangerous swelling known as lymphedema. But a new study indicates those warnings may be out-of-date.
Lymph is a fluid in the body that helps fight illness. It travels throughout the body in special tubes and collects in glands or pockets known as lymph nodes. Lymph nodes can become swollen, often because they are helping fight an infection. Most lymph nodes are found in the head and neck region of the body. There are also many lymph nodes in the armpits and groin area.
When a person has breast cancer, cancer cells can separate from the tumor and migrate to the lymph nodes in the arm pit area. Because the lymph system runs throughout the body, it is possible for cancer to quickly spread through the lymph system. To help prevent the spread of cancer, lymph nodes in the arm pit are often surgically removed along with a breast cancer tumor.
When the lymph system is damaged, including when surgery is done to remove some of the nodes or during radiation treatments for cancer, the area around the missing nodes may start to collect extra fluid. This kind of fluid build-up in the arms or legs is known as lymphedema.
Part of the standard treatment for breast cancer survivors includes warnings about the risks of lymphedema. Women are often warned that flying in an airplane can trigger lymphedema in the arm due to changes in air pressure in the airplane cabin. But a new study at the University of Alberta revealed that only 5 percent of women who fly after breast cancer treatment are at risk of developing any swelling in the arm as a result of the flight.
Researcher Margie McNeely teamed up with researchers in Australia to study 60 breast cancer survivors who were flying from Canada to Australia. Another group of 12 women in the study flew from one part of Australia to another part. Researchers took measurements in Canada before the flight began and compared the amount of fluid in each woman’s arm after the flight landed in Australia.
The study showed that 95 percent of the women had no swelling in their arms.