Lymphoedema is the swelling (oedema) that develops when lymph fluid builds up in the tissues of part of the body, such as an arm or breast. When lymph nodes have been damaged or removed, lymph fluid may not be able to drain as it should and instead builds up in the tissues, causing swelling.
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What causes lymphoedema?
Some breast cancer treatments may cause lymphoedema. These include surgery to remove lymph nodes and radiation therapy to the armpit. People who have had surgery followed by radiation therapy to the armpit are more at risk of lymphoedema. Lymphoedema can affect people at any time – during active treatment or months or even years afterward. Many people who are at risk never develop lymphoedema.
Signs of lymphoedema
Signs to look for include swelling of part of your arm or your whole arm; a feeling of tightness, heaviness or fullness in the fingers, wrist or the whole arm; and aching in the affected area. These signs may begin gradually or come and go.
Some people experience pain, redness or fever, which can be caused by an infection called cellulitis in the area with lymphoedema. If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible. Lymphoedema is easier to manage when diagnosed and treated early.
Who provides treatment
|If you have, or are at risk of developing lymphoedema, see a lymphoedema practitioner. You may have treatment from an occupational therapist, physiotherapist or nurse with specialist training in treating and managing lymphoedema.|
When to start treatment
|See a lymphoedema practitioner for regular check-ups after cancer treatment, rather than waiting for signs to appear. Taking action at an early stage can help reduce the risk of developing lymphoedema and the severity of lymphoedema if it does develop.|
What treatment involves
|The swelling can be reduced by wearing a professionally fitted compression sleeve or by massage from a lymphoedema practitioner. Exercise and skin care can help, as well as lymph taping or low-level laser treatment given by a lymphoedema practitioner.|
If you develop lymphoedema in the breast (breast oedema), you may be more comfortable wearing a bra designed for breast oedema. Ask your lymphoedema practitioner or breast care nurse where you can be fitted for the bra.
How to find a lymphoedema practitioner
|The Australasian Lymphology Association has a national register of trained lymphoedema practitioners.|
For more on this, see our general section on Lymphoedema.
Podcast: Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis
A/Prof Elisabeth Elder, Specialist Breast Surgeon, Westmead Breast Cancer Institute and The University of Sydney, NSW; Collette Butler, Clinical Nurse Consultant and McGrath Breast Care Nurse, Cancer Support Centre, Launceston, TAS; Tania Cercone, Consumer; Kate Cox, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Dr Marcus Dreosti, Radiation Oncologist and Medical Director, GenesisCare, SA; Dr Susan Fraser, Breast Physician, Cairns Hospital and Marlin Coast Surgery Cairns, QLD; Dr Hilda High, Genetic Oncologist, Sydney Cancer Genetics, NSW; Prof David W Kissane AC, Chair of Palliative Medicine Research, The University of Notre Dame Australia, and St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney, NSW; Prof Sherene Loi, Medical Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr W Kevin Patterson, Medical Oncologist, Adelaide Oncology and Haematology, SA; Angela Thomas, Consumer; Iwa Yeung, Physiotherapist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD.
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