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Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Swelling / lymphedema

Cancer and its treatment, such as surgery to remove lymph nodes (often for breast cancer), can sometimes change, block or interrupt the flow of lymph through the lymphatic system. When excess lymphatic fluid collects in the interstitial tissue, it is called lymphedema. This abnormal build up of fluid causes swelling in specific areas of the body, most often in the arms or legs.

Early diagnosis and treatment for lymphedema is important to help reduce symptoms and prevent the condition from progressing. Sentinel lymph node biopsy attempts to reduce the number of lymph nodes that need to be removed for biopsy.

In addition, lymphedema treatment may include skin care, manual lymph drainage, gentle massage, and light exercises to help stimulate the lymphatic system. Wearing compression bandages, pumps or garments (e.g., sleeves, stockings) can also help prevent additional fluid from accumulating in the tissue. In addition, medications can help reduce inflammation, prevent blood clots and treat infections.

Tips for managing lymphedema

  • Tell your doctor if you experience any symptoms. Monitor your activities to determine if a particular activity causes the condition to worsen.
  • Try to keep the affected arm or leg above the level of the heart when possible. Avoid stretching, pulling, or holding your arm over your head for extended periods of time.
  • Check all areas of the arms and legs daily for signs of infection, which may include a fever over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, chills, redness, pain, tenderness, heat, swelling and/or rash. Immediately report any warning signs of infection to your doctor.
  • Wear well-fitting compression garments that are carefully fitted and monitored to apply the right pressure while avoiding too much tightness near the top.
  • Protect the affected area from scratches, sores, burns, insect bites, or other irritations or injuries.
  • Avoid exposure to extreme cold or prolonged heat, which can be associated with increased fluid build up, swelling, or chapping/chafing of skin.
  • Avoid muscle strain, vigorous activities, repetitive movements, heavy lifting, or pulling of the affected limb. Also, avoid prolonged lying, standing, sitting or crossing the legs on the affected side.
  • If possible, try to avoid having blood pressure taken, blood drawn or injections given on the affected side as well.
  • Try to maintain a healthy weight, since being overweight can increase the chances of swelling. Avoid foods high in salt and fat.
  • Gradually increase the intensity of activity and avoid fatiguing the muscles of the affected area, which can cause injury or additional fluid accumulation.
  • Wear comfortable, well-fitting clothing and shoes. Avoid socks, hosiery or undergarments with tight elastic bands.
  • Wear loose watches, jewelry and gloves.
  • Women should wear well-fitted bras and bra straps should not be too tight.
  • Consult with a rehabilitation therapist trained in managing lymphedema.

NOTE: This information is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to making decisions about your treatment.