Lymphoedema is a 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, such as surgery to remove lymph nodes or radiation therapy to the armpit, can cause lymphoedema. People who have had surgery followed by radiation therapy to the armpit are more at risk of experiencing this side effect.
Signs of lymphoedema
Signs to look for include swelling; 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, and they may 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. The condition is easier to manage if it is diagnosed and treated early.
Who provides treatmentIf you are at risk of developing lymphoedema or for ongoing care, see a lymphoedema practitioner. This may be an occupational therapist, physiotherapist or nurse with specialist training in treating and managing lymphoedema.
When to start treatmentSee 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 involvesThe swelling can be reduced by wearing a professionally fitted compression sleeve or by massage from a lymphoedema practitioner. You may also benefit from low-level laser treatment 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 physiotherapist or breast care nurse where you can be fitted for the bra.
How to find a lymphoedema practitionerThe Australasian Lymphology Association maintains an online national register of trained lymphoedema practitioners.
For more on this, see our general section on Lymphoedema.
Prof Bruce Mann, Professor of Surgery, The University of Melbourne, and Director, Breast Tumour Stream, Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Marie Burke, Radiation Oncologist, and Medical Director GenesisCare Oncology, QLD; Dr Susan Fraser, Breast Physician, Cairns Hospital and Marlin Coast Surgery Cairns, QLD; Ruth Groom, Consumer; Julie McGirr, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; A/Prof Catriona McNeil, Medical Oncologist, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Dr Roya Merie, Staff Specialist, Radiation Oncology, Liverpool Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW; Dr Eva Nagy, Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon, Sydney Oncoplastic Surgery, NSW; Gay Refeld, Clinical Nurse Consultant – Breast Care, St John of God Subiaco Hospital, WA; Genny Springham, Consumer.
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