Cancer Lymphedema

Do you have any of the following signs or symptoms of lymphedema?

  • Limb or facial heaviness
  • Swelling in arm(s), leg(s), face, abdomen, genitals
  • Warmth in arm, leg, face, abdomen, genitals
  • Tingling in fingers or hands
  • Tightness of skin
  • Skin changes such as hardening or firmness in the skin
  • Rings or watches, clothing fitting tighter
  • Redness or red streaks on the arm or leg

If you notice any of these signs or symptoms you should contact your physician as you may have lymphedema.

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is the swelling that occurs generally in one of your arm, leg, face, abdomen, and genitals from removal of lymph nodes or blockage in the lymph system. The lymph system is part of the immune system of your body. Lymphedema is not curable, but it can be managed by taking care of your skin, wearing compression garments daily, performing self-massage as instructed by your therapist, eating healthy food, exercising, and managing your weight.

Who gets lymphedema?

Some people are born with an impaired lymphatic system. This is called primary lymphedema. Others are born with an intact lymphatic system, but it becomes damaged. This is called secondary lymphedema. Lymphedema following treatment for cancer is a type of secondary lymphedema.

How do I know if I am at risk for developing lymphedema?

If you have received radiation or have had any lymph nodes removed to treat your cancer, you are at risk for developing lymphedema.

Surgery and radiation are the most common causes of lymphedema in the United States. Simply undergoing a mastectomy without lymph node removal or without radiation does not put you at risk for lymphedema.

What can I do to prevent lymphedema?

If you have had radiation or surgery for your breast cancer, you should take the following precautions:

DO NOT do these things on the affected side/s:

  1. Blood pressure
  2. Needle sticks
  3. Extreme heat - avoid using a heating pad on the affected area, avoid jacuzzies, sauna, steam baths
  4. Shaving with a razor. You can use any electric shaver instead.
  5. Very tight clothing or jewelry
  6. Lifting heavy things
  7. Avoid cutting nail cuticles

DO these things on the affect side/s:

  1. Use bug spray
  2. Use your arm and leg normally
  3. Use sunscreen
  4. Use gloves and long pants when gardening
  5. Inspect skin often
  6. Wear your compression garments daily as recommended by your lymphedema therapist/ doctor.

If you notice any pain, redness, swelling in your arm, leg, neck or genitals see a doctor immediately. You may require antibiotics to take care of the infection if you have any.

If I have lymphedema...
Will it go away?

No. Lymphedema will not go away on its own. You will need special treatment to reduce and manage the swelling so that it does not get worse.
There is no pill you can take or medication that will cure lymphedema. It must be treated with Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT).

What is the treatment?

Your doctor may refer you to a Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT), who can perform CDT to help your swelling go down.
CDT involves moving the fluid out of the swollen body part and into other areas of the body that can effectively drain the fluid. CDT also involves:

  • Compression Bandaging
  • Therapeutic Exercise
  • Meticulous Skin and Nail Care
  • Instructions in Self-Care
  • Diet changes – eat more fruits and vegetables and avoid processed meats and sugars
  • Use of lymphedema pump

Where can I learn more about lymphedema?

Resources to find a lymphedema therapist