Flying with Breast Cancer

Barbara in Dubai with compression sleeve

At some point in your breast cancer journey, you will probably have the occasion to take a flight for business, vacation, family travel or some other reason. Your should discuss it with your doctor to make sure you are cleared for takeoff, and ask about your risk of developing lymphedema. I’m fortunate that I’ve never had a problem and have flown many times throughout my breast cancer journey.

If you’ve had lymph nodes removed from one of your arms during your breast surgery, you are at risk for developing lymphedema both on the ground and when you fly. Lymphedema is less common today than it was in the past,  but it is still a risk you need to consider.  Make sure you discuss it with your doctor.

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is an accumulation of fluid in your arm (or another part of your body) and causes edema, or swelling that can be very painful and uncomfortable. Your doctor may prescribe a lymphedema compression sleeve and glove, which helps keep the fluid from accumulating.

I’ve had a lymphedema sleeve and glove since my original surgery nearly 14 years ago.   When I first got them, I was extremely careful to use them each and every time I flew. Now, if it’s a short flight,  I often leave off the glove. When I go international, I wear both the sleeve and the glove. It’s just part of my equipment whenever I pack for a trip.

Ways to help prevent lymphedema

Another way you can help prevent developing lymphedema is to never allow anyone  to take blood or place a blood pressure cuff on your “at risk” arm.  If you have a week with a particularly large number of doctors visits and blood tests, this can cause discomfort in your arm where the lymph nodes are intact. It can also come into play if you need to have an imaging test such as an MRI or CT Scan with contrast. Contrast is often administered via an intravenous infusion (IV), which also goes through the same arm.

A healthy diet may help

I usually recommend a low sodium diet for breast cancer patients at risk of lymphedema, although there isn’t definitive research to support this recommendation. Following a lower sodium diet is generally part of a heart healthy eating plan, lymphedema notwithstanding. So unless your doctor tells you something to the contrary, try to reduce your salt intake by avoiding processed foods, commercially canned soups, salty deli meats and pickles.

Being overweight or obese puts you at higher risk

There is research that associates a higher risk of developing lymphedema if you are obese or overweight. Eating healthy, well balanced meals, participating in physical activity and following a sensible weight loss plan if you need to lose some pounds, will help you with your overall health. Maintaining a healthy body weight will also help reduce your risk of developing breast cancer, high blood pressure and can help if you have diabetes.

Other advice I’ve received in the past is to avoid heavy lifting with your “at risk” arm and always carry your handbag on the side where your lymph nodes are still intact. While an inconvenience when you are early in your post-surgical recovery, at this point I hardly ever think of lymphedema risk, unless I’m on a plane. I also have to admit, that I sometimes forget to wear my sleeve and glove when I’m on a short flight. Nobody’s perfect all the time!

Call your doctor if you start to develop symptoms

If you start to experience lymphedema symptoms, call your doctor immediately. Your doctor can help guide you with getting it under control. There are physical therapists and lymphedema therapists who are specially trained to help reduce lymphedema using massage, exercises and wrapping techniques. Don’t wait to get this started. Once you’ve had lymphedema for a few weeks or months, it becomes increasingly difficult to treat.

I’m lucky that I’ve not personally experienced lymphedema. At this point my doctors allow me to do all my normal activities with no limitations. Right after your surgery you have to be extra careful until your body has healed. It becomes less of a concern,  as the years go by, depending on how many lymph nodes were removed.

I’m still careful about needles and blood pressure cuffs on my “at risk” arm.  In the meantime, I’ll keep wearing my sleeve and glove on long plane rides, follow a healthy diet and exercise daily. I’d rather prevent a problem that I don’t currently have, then try to fix it later.  It’s just one more small part of my self-care plan to remain strong and resilient.

Don’t let breast cancer kill your dreams.  Life goes on, despite your diagnosis.


If you want additional information, click here to go to Breast Cancer: Treating Lymphedema from PubMed Health, a service provided by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).

If you are located in Australia or New Zealand, click here to go to the Australasian Lymphology Association.

Hi, I am

Barbara Spalding MS, RDN, Culinary Dietitian

As a dietitian and world traveler, I love bold flavors — in food and in life. 14 years ago, I fell down the rabbit hole into Breast Cancer Wonderland. Since then, I’ve learned to cook differently while savoring the pleasures of food and companionship. I’ve built a resilient new life and a bold new kitchen. Let me show you the flavors of the world.
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