People with cancer who have undergone lymph node removal and/or radiation as part of their treatment are at risk for developing lymphedema. Lymphedema is a painful swelling that happens when your body’s lymphatic fluid is unable to circulate properly and builds up in your soft tissues instead. It usually occurs in an arm or leg. Although it is a serious condition, lymphedema can be managed successfully. This involves making some lifestyle changes, protecting your affected limb from injury, and knowing what you can do to help control your lymphedema.

Possible signs of lymphedema:

  • Arm or leg feeling “heavy”
  • Weakness or decreased flexibility
  • Clothes or jewelry becomes too tight
  • The skin thickens (hyperkeratosis) or hardens
  • Warts or blisters develop
  • Difficult moving or decrease in flexibility

Steps you can take to manage your symptoms:

Talk to your doctor about lymphedema. Having complete, accurate information about lymphedema from your doctor or nurse can help you feel prepared to manage this condition.

Get help for your symptoms as soon as possible. In addition to swelling of the affected limb, the most common problems are pain, hardening of the skin, and loss of mobility. Lymphedema must be addressed. If left untreated, it can get worse and may cause permanent damage.

Consider having an manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) massage. The most common method of treatment is a special massage called manual lymph drainage, or MLD. This type of massage helps move the fluid out from where it is settled. Afterwards, the affected limb is wrapped in low-stretch bandages that are padded with foam or gauze.

Exercises.Physical activity can help prevent swelling. Your health care team can refer you to a program of special exercises that are taught and monitored by a trained physical therapist.

Wear a compression sleeve. Non-elastic bandages and compression garments, such as elastic sleeves, place gentle pressure on the affected area. This can help drain the lymph fluid. It’s important to wear a compression garment when flying, even on short flights.

Skin care. Keep your skin moist and wear sunscreen outdoors. Always wear gloves when gardening or removing items from the oven or stove to help protect your skin.

Complete decongestive therapy (CDT). CDT combines skin care, manual lymphatic drainage, exercise, and compression. Talk to your doctor to see if CDT is right for you.

Always treat scratches, cuts, and insect bites. If you notice swelling or redness, please contact your doctor immediately.

Be gentle with your body. Carrying heavy packages, luggage, or shoulder bags puts stress on your affected limb and could cause additional swelling and pain.

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Last updated March 1, 2016

The information presented in this publication is provided for your general information only. It is not intended as medical advice and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultations with qualified health professionals who are aware of your specific situation. We encourage you to take information and questions back to your individual health care provider as a way of creating a dialogue and partnership about your cancer and your treatment.

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