Lymphoedema is swelling that occurs in the soft tissues under the skin due to a build-up of lymph fluid. If lymph nodes have been removed during surgery or damaged by infection, injury, or radiation therapy, the lymph fluid may not drain properly.
Swelling usually occurs in an arm or leg, but it can also affect other areas of the body. The likelihood of developing lymphoedema after treatment depends on the extent of the surgery, other cancer treatment and your body weight. Lymphoedema can take months or years to develop. Not everyone who is at risk will develop it.
Lymphoedema may be permanent, but it can usually be managed, particularly if diagnosed early. The main signs of lymphoedema include visible swelling, which may be associated with feelings of tightness or heaviness, an aching or tingling feeling, not being able to fully move the affected limb, or pitting of the skin.
Lymphoedema requires lifelong self-care and management. The focus of treatment is to improve the flow of lymph fluid through the affected area. This will help reduce swelling and improve the health of the swollen tissue. Reducing the swelling will lower your risk of infection, improve your well-being and make movement easier.
Gentle exercise, compression stockings, and a type of massage called lymphatic drainage can all help to reduce the swelling. It is important that you consult a lymphoedema professional who can tailor a treatment plan for you based on the location and stage of the lymphoedema and any other health conditions you may have.
My experience is that lymphoedema is very manageable if you notice the signs early.
- Treat lymphoedema early so that you can deal with the problem quickly and avoid symptoms becoming worse.
- Keep the skin healthy and unbroken to reduce the risk of infection. Avoid cuts, scratches, bites and injections in the affected area.
- Moisturise your skin daily to prevent dry, irritated skin.
- Engage in activities like swimming, bike-riding or using light weights to aid the flow of lymph fluid.
- Maintain a healthy body weight.
- Protect your skin from the sun.
- Avoid wearing jewellery or clothing that constricts the affected area or leaves marks on your skin.
- Take care cutting your toenails or see a podiatrist to look after your feet and nails.
- Raise your legs if watching TV. Avoid sitting for long periods.
- Wear a professionally-fitted compression garment, if advised by your lymphoedema practioner.
- To find a lymphoedema practitioner, see Australasian Lymphology Association, or ask your doctor for a referral.
- Seek medical help urgently if you think you have an infection in the affected area.
- For more on this, see Lymphoedema.
Dr Haryana Dhillon, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Medical Psychology & Evidence-based Decision-making, School of Psychology, University of Sydney, NSW; Polly Baldwin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Jessica Barbon, Dietitian, Southern Adelaide Health Network, SA; Dr Anna Burger, Liaison Psychiatrist and Senior Staff Specialist, Psycho-oncology Clinic, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, ACT; Elizabeth Dillon, Social Worker, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Prof Paul Glare, Chair in Pain Medicineand Director, Pain Management Research Institute, University of Sydney, NSW; Nico le Kinnane, Nurse Coordinator, Gynaecology Services, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Amanda Piper, Manager, Australian Cancer Survivorship Centre, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Kyle Smith, Exercise Medicine Research Institute, Edith Cowan University, WA; Aaron Tan, Consumer; Dr Kate Webber, Medical Oncologist and Research Director, National Centre for Cancer Survivorship, NSW. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Life after cancer treatment
Programs and support for people who have finished treatment
Cancer Council Online Community
A community forum – a safe place to share stories, get tips and connect with people who understand
ENRICH – a free healthy lifestyle program
A face-to-face exercise and nutrition program for cancer survivors