Lymphedema is a common complication of cancer and its treatment. Lymph fluid builds up in a specific area such as an arm or a leg, causing painful swelling, inflammation and tissue thickening under the skin. Lymphedema can occur when cancer or its treatment disrupts or removes lymph nodes or vessels, preventing excess fluid and proteins from draining properly.
Who develops lymphedema?
The condition can develop quickly within a few days following surgery or gradually over weeks, months or even years after treatment. Your lymphedema risk increases if you:
- Have undergone breast cancer treatment that involves radiation therapy or removing lymph nodes
- Had lymph nodes removed in the underarm, groin or pelvic areas
- Had radiation therapy to the underarm, groin, pelvic or neck areas
- Have scar tissue in lymphatic ducts or veins under your collarbone
- Have cancer that’s spread to lymph nodes in your neck, chest, underarm, pelvis or abdomen
- Have pelvic or abdominal tumors that place pressure on lymph vessels or ducts
What can you do?
Once lymphedema occurs, you may frequently experience its painful swelling. Take these precautions to help you cope with lymphedema:
- Keep the area elevated. Whenever possible, raise the affected arm or leg above your heart to prevent blood from collecting in your limb’s lower portions.
- Wear loose-fitting clothes and accessories. Avoid tight elastic bands, socks, shoes and jewelry.
- Exercise regularly and gently. Physical activity can improve lymphatic drainage. Follow your physician’s advice regarding specific hand, arm, foot or leg exercises.
- Baby your affected limb. Use your other arm for carrying bags, having blood drawn or getting blood pressure checks. Don’t sit in one position for more than 30 minutes and avoid crossing your legs.
- Guard against injuries, burns and infections. Wear gloves when gardening, cooking and performing other chores. Use an electric razor for shaving. Wear shoes outdoors. Treat any cuts or scrapes promptly by washing them with soap and water and applying an antibacterial ointment and bandage. Call your healthcare provider immediately if you have signs of infection like redness, pain, heat, swelling and fever.
- Avoid extreme temperatures. Stay out of hot tubs and saunas and avoid using heating pads or ice packs.
- Protect your skin. Clean your skin gently and moisturize regularly. Use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.
- Wear compression garments. Get fitted for these special garments or sleeves that help prevent swelling and lymphedema.
- Ask about treatment options. You may find relief with antibiotics, pain medications or relaxation techniques. Your healthcare provider may suggest a specialized physical therapy program, such as manual lymphatic drainage, which uses mild massage to help move fluid from the limb to your body’s trunk; or complex decongestive therapy, which combines massage, compression wrapping, exercise and skin care. Another option is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), which applies mild electric current to the skin, a sort of “electrical massage” to relieve pain.