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Understanding Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a build-up of lymph fluid that causes swelling. It can happen if lymph nodes or lymph vessels are removed or damaged. Surgery and radiation to treat cancer can cause this damage. Then lymph fluid may collect and cause swelling in the treated parts of your body. This can happen any time, even many years after treatment.

After cancer treatment that removes or damages lymph nodes, you are at risk for lymphedema for the rest of your life. But you can do things to help reduce your risk. And there are ways to reduce or relieve swelling if it happens. If left untreated, lymphedema can get worse. It may not go away. It can also lead to other problems such as pain and infections.

What is the lymph system?

The lymphatic system is part of your immune system. It’s a network of tiny vessels and small organs called lymph nodes. These nodes are found along the vessels. This system carries lymph throughout the body. Lymph is a clear fluid that contains a few white blood cells.

The lymphatic system helps protect your body and keep it healthy. It helps keep your fluids at the correct level. It also and filters lymph to help fight infection.

How lymphedema happens

Lymph nodes and vessels are removed during surgery to treat many kinds of cancer. Or they may be treated with radiation. This scars and damages them. It disrupts the normal flow of lymph fluid, which can lead to swelling. So instead of lymph draining into your body as it should, the fluid collects in the fatty tissues under your skin. This causes swelling. The changes in the flow of lymph also keep the lymph from being filtered the way it should. This can increase the risk for infection. It can interfere with wound healing in the affected areas.

Lymphedema can affect one or both arms or legs, the groin, the face, the head and neck, or the belly (abdomen). It depends on which part of your body was treated. The swelling can get worse over time and cause problems. It can lead to skin sores or other skin changes. These areas are also more likely to become infected.

Symptoms of lymphedema

Lymphedema can occur in an arm, leg, groin, chest, head, neck, or armpit. Symptoms can include:

  • Swelling

  • A feeling of fullness or heaviness

  • Your skin feels stiff or tight

  • Weakness

  • Aching or pain

  • Skin that looks red

  • Trouble bending or moving a joint in your fingers, wrist, elbow, shoulder, or ankle

  • Shoes, clothing, bra, or jewelry feels tight

Can lymphedema be prevented?

Not all experts agree on what might help reduce risk. But one of the most important things you can do is watch for signs of lymphedema. As you heal, be aware of how your hand, arm, and chest normally feel and look. Compare the sides of your body. Watch for changes. If you notice any changes, let your provider know right away. The sooner any swelling is treated, the better the chances of reducing it and keeping it from getting worse.

Here are some other thing to do:

  • Get follow-up care after cancer treatment. See your healthcare provider on a regular basis for checkups. Ask about your risk for lymphedema. You also may want to ask about seeing a lymphedema specialist to learn more about what you can do to try to prevent lymphedema.

  • Prevent infection and inflammation. Wash, treat, and cover any skin wounds, even a small cut, scratch, or burn. Keep your skin clean, and use lotion to keep it moist. Check your skin often. Get treatment right away at the first sign of infection.

  • Keep active. Ask your healthcare team about the type of exercise that’s best for you. A lymphedema specialist can help you learn safe exercises.

  • Manage your weight. Talk with your provider about what’s a healthy weight for you. Ask them for help with how to get to or stay at that weight.

When to call your healthcare provider

Lymphedema needs to be treated right away. Call your healthcare provider if you have:

  • Any of the symptoms of lymphedema listed above

  • Signs of infection such as red blotches, warmth, or pain

Online Medical Reviewer: Kim Stump-Sutliff, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Louise Cunningham, RN, BSN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2018
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