Some people who have had treatment for early breast cancer experience a swelling of part of the body, usually a limb such as the arm. This is known as lymphoedema. It occurs when the lymph fluid cannot drain properly because the lymph nodes have been damaged or removed. The fluid builds up, causing swelling.

If you have had treatment affecting the lymph nodes, such as radiation therapy to the armpit or axillary surgery, you may be at risk of developing lymphoedema. People who have had surgery followed by radiation therapy to the armpit are more at risk.

Learn more about:

Symptoms of lymphoedema

Symptoms of lymphoedema are easier to manage if the condition is diagnosed and treated early. Signs of lymphoedema include:

  • swelling, heaviness or fullness in the arm
  • reddened skin
  • skin warmth.

These signs may begin gradually and they may come and go. Some people experience pain or fever, which may mean an infection in the arm with lymphoedema called cellulitis. If you have swelling, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Preventing lymphoedema

Lymphoedema can develop months or years after treatment, although some people who are at risk never develop it.

In many hospitals, a lymphoedema practitioner will assess you before you have surgery. Some hospitals have specialist physiotherapists who can teach you simple exercises to reduce your risk of developing lymphoedema.

You can also refer to Cancer Council’s Exercises after breast surgery poster.

Managing lymphoedema

If you develop lymphoedema, the swelling can be reduced in various ways:

  • by wearing a professionally fitted elastic (compression) sleeve
  • with massage from a lymphoedema practitioner, physiotherapist, nurse or occupational therapist
  • with laser treatment by a lymphoedema practitioner.

Long periods of physical inactivity, such as when travelling, may worsen lymphoedema symptoms. Talk to your doctor or lymphoedema practitioner about wearing a compression sleeve during air, rail or car travel.

To find out more about lymphoedema, read Cancer Australia’s booklet Lymphoedema – what you need to know. The Australasian Lymphology Association maintains a directory of lymphoedema practitioners. 

This information was last reviewed in July 2016
View who reviewed this content
View our editorial policy

Support services

Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum

Life after cancer treatment
Support groups, programs and webinars for people who have finished treatment

Cancer information

General information about surgery and recovery

View our publications
Guides and fact sheets for people with cancer, their families and friends