Swelling (Edema)

Swelling (edema) is a condition in which fluid builds up in your body’s tissues. Edema can be caused by either a problem getting rid of fluid in the body, or of holding too much fluid in the body. These problems may be caused by some types of cancer or hormone changes; medication, including chemotherapy drugs; problems related to the heart, liver, or kidney; or a blockage in the veins or lymph system. Learn more about edema.

Some chemotherapy drugs can cause fluid to collect in the body, especially in the feet, ankles, hands, and face.

Signs of Edema

Signs of edema may include:

  • Swelling in your face, hands, arms, legs, or feet.
  • Swelling or bloating in your stomach or lower belly.
  • Rings that feel too tight for fingers.
  • Hands that feel tight when making a fist.
  • Shortness of breath.

Managing Edema

Tell your health care team if you notice any new swelling in your body. Your doctor or nurse will look into what is causing your symptoms, talk to you about steps to take, and may prescribe medicine to help.

Know When to Get Help Right Away

Call your doctor right away if you:

  • Feel short of breath.
  • Have a heartbeat that seems different or is not regular.
  • Have sudden swelling or swelling that is getting worse.
  • Gain weight quickly.
  • Don’t urinate at all or urinate only a little.

Tips for Dealing with Edema

Follow these steps to prevent or lessen edema-related swelling.

Get Comfortable

  • Wear loose clothing and shoes that are not too tight.
  • Prop your feet up when sitting in a chair or resting in bed.
  • Avoid crossing your legs when you sit.
  • Talk with your health care team about wearing special stockings, sleeves, or gloves that help with circulation if your swelling is severe.

Exercise

Moving the part of your body with edema can help. Your doctor may give you specific exercises, including walking, to improve circulation. However, you may be told not to stand or walk too much at one time.

Limit Salt (Sodium) in Your Diet

  • Avoid foods such as chips, bacon, ham, and canned soup. Check food labels for the sodium content. Don’t add salt or soy sauce to your food.
  • Learn more about eating a healthy diet. Here are some tips for healthy eating:
    • Include foods from all the food groups in your diet.
    • Eat plenty of high-fiber foods, like whole-grain breads and cereals.
    • Bake or broil foods to decrease the amount of fat in your meals.
  • Plan your meals. Consider following the DASH eating plan.

Take Your Medicine

If your doctor prescribes a medicine called a diuretic, take it exactly as instructed. The medicine will help move the extra fluid and salt out of your body.

Talk to Your Health Care Team

Prepare for your visit by making a list of questions to ask. Consider adding these questions to your list:

  • Are my medications or treatment likely to increase my risk of developing swelling?
  • Are there steps I can take to prevent swelling?
  • What symptoms or problems should I call you about?
  • What steps can I take to feel better if I notice swelling?
  • Are there foods, drinks, or activities I should avoid?

Ask for Help

Ask your caregivers to help you manage edema by:

  • Watching for any new symptoms, especially shortness of breath or swelling in the face.
  • Reminding you to keep the swollen body part propped up as high as is comfortable when sitting or lying down.
  • Learning to read food labels and talking with your cancer team about how to keep salt intake down.
  • Not adding salt, soy sauce, or monosodium glutamate (MSG) when cooking or preparing food.
  • Helping you track your weight. Weigh yourself every 1 to 2 days on the same scale, at the same time of day. Keep a list of weights and dates.
  • Get more tips on what caregivers can do.

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 Edema

The National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society have additional resources to help you, including managing swelling from chemotherapy and swelling.

Action Category: 
Symptoms