Some people living with breast cancer undergo sentinel or axillary lymph node removal surgery as part of their breast cancer treatment. The procedure can be done by either a biopsy, when a few cells are removed with a needle, or surgery, when the entire lymph node is removed through an incision.
Because this surgery takes place in or near the armpits, you may wonder whether it’s safe to shave in that area after the procedure or if you should look for other methods of hair removal. Finding the right approach for you is crucial after breast cancer surgery, and it’s important to remember that not everyone may opt to shave.
Here’s what you need to know to make the decision that is best for you.
Sentinel lymph node procedure involves removing or taking samples of the main lymph nodes that may be affected by cancer. Shaving your armpit after the procedure can cause several potential problems.
The removal of lymph nodes disrupts the flow of lymphatic fluid (or lymph), which is part of your immune system. Lymph can build up in an area where it’s struggling to drain, which causes lymphedema (swelling of tissue).
Lymphedema can occur right after surgery, but it can also happen much later if lymph fluid continues to build up. It can also be an ongoing occurrence that you face repeatedly.
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to prevent or manage lymphedema.
For one, you’ll need to avoid injury or infections in or near the area where lymph nodes were removed. Shaving with a traditional razor can cause nicks and cuts, which could become infected. Some doctors thus recommend using other methods of hair removal — at least for the affected arm or on the affected side — until you’ve completely healed.
In fact, some doctors say that you should not use a regular razor anywhere on your body after having lymph nodes removed, as any risk of infection at the surgical site can cause strain on your lymphatic and immune systems.
One MyBCTeam member wound up with an infection: “I used a razor and got an infection.”
However, others say that it’s enough to use a clean razor and be very careful. There’s no guidance on when to resume hair removal after surgery, so look to your surgeon for advice on when this is safe for you.
When people ask questions about shaving after surgery on MyBCTeam, many members who respond have successfully used razors. As one said, “I use a regular razor. I only had one node removed on each side. I never cut myself and have been fine.”
Another shared, “I use a razor and started a couple weeks after surgery.”
Yet another added, “I had eight lymph nodes removed, and I have lymphedema. I shave with a razor every day, and I’m just really careful.”
Some people wait at least a few weeks before they go back to shaving, like one member who explained, “I had four lymph nodes removed and have been using a regular razor since one month after surgery. It feels weird because half my armpit is numb, but I’ve never had any issues.”
Many people use a variety of methods to protect themselves even when they do go back to shaving. Special razors can help, as they did for one member, who said, “I had three nodes taken and some numbness. I’ve been using a Schick Silk Reflections razor that has a border of soap around the blades. I just use it and guide it lightly.”
Others protect themselves using different products, like the member who explained, “I use a razor too, even though the entire areas of both my armpits are numb. The hair is light in texture and sparse. I use a thick layer of sensitive or aloe shaving cream to protect the area.”
Other members also say they take precautions to prevent injury, including checking the area carefully every time they shave. One member explained their process like this: “I use a regular razor but am very careful and run my fingers over the area afterward because half of my underarms are still numb. Had 10 nodes removed on the right and four on the left.”
Some people choose to forego regular razors entirely. One person said, “I still bought an electric razor — my armpit is numb so I don’t love using a blade when I can’t feel if I’ve nicked myself or not.”
If you want to use a razor, talk to your oncology team to make sure it’s a good choice for you.
There are several methods of hair removal that may be safer than shaving after your sentinel lymph node biopsy or removal. These methods help reduce the risk of potential complications and may promote a smoother healing process.
Shaving with an electric razor seems to be the most highly recommended way to safely remove unwanted body hair after you have your lymph nodes removed. However, some people get frustrated because these razors don’t provide as close a shave as regular razors, like a member who said, “I tried an electric razor after surgery but felt that it didn’t get close enough.”
This may be a matter of trial and error, though, as another member said, “I did switch to a new type of electric razor and it gets a lot closer.”
Some doctors recommend chemical hair removal methods, like depilatory cream, while others do not. Because these chemicals can cause irritation, they could also lead to lymphedema if you’re sensitive to them. So, before trying chemical hair remover, it’s smart to do a spot test on a small area of skin. This way, you can check if they cause any irritation or inflammation in your armpit.
Some MyBCTeam members have asked about waxing for hair removal, but this method may damage the skin. As one member noted, “I looked waxing up online and found that it can be irritating and even rip sensitive armpit skin.”
Being cautious with waxing makes sense, especially if you haven’t tried it before and don’t know how you will respond.
The hair removal method that is right for you depends on your body, whether you are living with lymphedema, and the amount of your armpit that is involved. The best thing you can do is talk to your oncologist before or after surgery. Tell them that hair removal is important to you and ask for recommendations. They should be able to help you find a satisfactory way to remove unwanted body hair safely.
MyBCTeam is the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones. On MyBCTeam, more than 64,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.
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