If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, your oncologist may suggest lymph node removal as part of the course of treatment. Whether to get this procedure done is a personal choice that each woman must make. It is important to know the risks—and your options– before you commit to this potentially-dangerous procedure, however.
Why is lymph node removal so common?
When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, often times “sentinel lymph nodes” around the affected area may be removed via biopsy before conventional treatment begins (other times they are removed during surgery). Conventional oncologists often suggest this based on the premise that cancer cells tend to spread first to “sentinel lymph nodes,” i.e. the lymph nodes closest to the tumor, before they spread to “auxiliary nodes” and the rest of the body.
Lymph node removal in breast cancer patients has been around since the early 1900’s; it is part of an old paradigm that focuses primarily on “getting all of the tumor out.” As new ways of looking at cancer are come to the forefront, however, even researchers and doctors within the halls of conventional medicine are beginning to question whether the procedure is necessary for all women.
The field of breast cancer oncology was turned upside down in 2011 when a study out of John Wayne Cancer Center in Southern California announced that for roughly 20% of all U.S. breast cancer, lymph node removal did not make any difference whatsoever in their recovery. For approximately 40,000 women per year who have stage T1 or T2 cancer tumors that have not traveled elsewhere in the body, it did not improve their survival nor their metastasis rates in any way.
“I have a feeling we’ve been doing a lot of harm,” said Dr. Grant W. Carson, one of the authors of the report, in reflecting on the legacy of lymph node removal for breast cancer patients that has persisted until this point.
The Perils of Lymphedema
Lymph nodes are vital for the body for several reasons. They are one of the areas where white blood cells and Natural Killer Cells are produced. The lymphatic system is also the body’s second most important line of defense against harmful pathogens (besides the skin). It filters unwanted substances that may accumulate throughout the whole body to detoxification pathways so that they can be eliminated.
For those who have a Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy (SLNB), an estimated 5-17% will develop lymphedema, according to the National Cancer Institute. For Auxiliary Lymph Node Dissection (ALND) surgery, the percentage jumps to between 20 to 53 percent. And a whopping 70% of those who elect to have all of their breast-area lymph nodes removed will develop the condition.
Lymphedema is a painful condition that happens when lymph fluid becomes clogged and collects under the skin’s surface—and edema and fibrosis can follow if it is not addressed. Fibrosis in particular stops the natural flow of oxygen and healthy substances through the lymph system and can lead to bacterial overgrowth and infection.
3 Easy Ways to Keep Your Lymph System Flowing…Naturally
If you have already had some or all of your breast area lymph nodes removed as part of a conventional breast cancer protocol (or are prone to lymphedema for other reasons), be sure to add these important practices to your overall health routine:
- Move your body! This is perhaps the most important thing you can do to keep your lymph and detoxification pathways healthy. Remember that lymphatic fluid needs to flow and regular exercise can help that process. A 2011 review of 11 other studies published in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship found that “strong evidence is now available on the safety of resistance exercise” for breast cancer patients.” Resistance exercises for lymphedema would include gentle exercises that lightly use your muscles against an opposing force, such as a resistance band. Many experts also claim that “rebounding” (using a small trampoline) is also one of the most effective exercise modalities for both the lymph nodes and the immune system.
- Consider ancient Ayurvedic lymphatic modalities such as dry skin brushing and traditional and as well as modern versions of lymphatic massage;
- Finally, assist your detoxification process in general by staying hydrated with lots of fresh, filtered water and also by staying away from toxins that may come in contact with the skin, such as commercial deodorants which contain aluminum.
Research and evidence over the last few years tells us that conventional medicine may be veering away from lymph node removal as an instant protocol for all breast cancer patients. This is a very good thing. In the meantime, if you are considering it, just keep the risks in mind and, if at all possible, discover ways to work with your body, not against it, on your healing journey with breast cancer.