Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a build-up of fluid in the fatty tissues just under the skin that causes swelling (most often in the arms or legs). It can also affect other parts of the body, depending on the part of the body that was treated, where the cancer was located, or anything that changed or damaged the lymph system.

Cancer patients who get treated for lymphedema may enjoy a better quality of life than those who do not.

Causes of Lymphedema

You may be at higher risk of lymphedema if there are any changes to your lymph system caused by cancer or cancer treatment. Changes may be caused by:

  • Surgery, when your doctor may take out lymph nodes near the tumor.
  • Radiation treatment, which can affect the flow of lymph fluid by scarring the lymph nodes and vessels.
  • Cancer, when a tumor can block part of the lymph system and cause lymphedema.
  • Infection, which may block lymph flow.

Reduce Your Risk

Following these and other basic steps might lower your risk of lymphedema, delay its onset, or reduce its impact.

  • Get regular medical check-ups. Talk to your health care team about how often you should be checked.
  • Report any changes in an area at risk for lymphedema to your doctor right away.
  • Try to get to and/or stay at a healthy weight.
  • Follow tips for exercising safely.

Breast Cancer-Specific Lymphedema

Women who have been treated for breast cancer may be at risk for lymphedema in the arm, breast, and chest.

Know the Signs

Signs and symptoms of lymphedema include:

  • Changes in your skin texture.
  • The feeling that a part of your body is full or heavy.
  • Swollen breasts, chest, shoulders, arms, or hands.

Managing Lymphedema

If you develop lymphedema, talk to your doctor. Treatments are available to reduce the swelling, keep it from getting worse, and decrease the risk of infection.

  • Be sure to mention changes to your doctor right away to get your lymphedema under control. Ask whether you should see a cancer rehabilitation specialist to help you treat your lymphedema.
  • Specially trained physical therapists or other health care professionals can treat mild lymphedema.
  • Use compression garments and dressings. These are fitted sleeves or stockings that can help control lymphedema. Be sure to follow your doctor’s advice on use and care of the garment.
  • Get more information for people who have lymphedema.

Get Support

For more detailed information on support options, visit Get Support.

Talk to Your Health Care Team

Your health care team needs to know how you’re doing. Be sure to tell them about any changes you notice.

Talk to Family and Friends

Your loved ones want to support you. They can help with activities like housework, running errands, and getting to appointments. Be as specific as possible about the kind of help you need.

Find Peer Support

Talk About Your Concerns

Peer groups offer a welcoming environment to share your feelings and experiences with people who are going through the same things. Use the American Cancer Society’s Resource Search to find a peer group in your area or call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 for personalized assistance.

Visit the Cancer Survivors Network Online

The Cancer Survivors Network is an online community with more than 40 discussion boards where cancer survivors share their cancer-related experiences, support one another, and exchange practical tips.

NCI Cancer Information Service

Call

Speak to a National Cancer Institute health information specialist by calling 1-800-4-Cancer.

Chat

The National Cancer Institute offers live, online assistance through its LiveHelp service.

ACS National Cancer Information Center

Get Tips

Get information and tips from a cancer information specialist at the American Cancer Society by calling 1-800-227-2345. Lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Chat

The American Cancer Society offers live, online assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Select the Live Chat option from any page on cancer.org.

Learn More About Lymphedema

The American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute have additional resources to help you, including understanding lymphedema and lymphedema.