Lymphoedema

General cancer information

Lymphoedema

Lymphoedema is a type of swelling. It is caused by damage to the lymphatic system and a build-up of lymph fluid that causes the limb or area to become swollen

Lymphoedema can be caused by the cancer itself, cancer treatments or other health problems.

It can affect any part of the body but the arms or legs are most often involved.

Early detection and intervention is important.

Tell your nurse or doctor immediately if you notice the signs of lymphoedema.

Be prepared

Know what to expect - lymphoedema

Ask your doctor if you are likely to get lymphoedema and what can be done to prevent and manage this.

Symptoms of lymphoedema may include:

  • swelling
  • infection in the area
  • aching, stiffness or heaviness of area
  • not being able to move the affected area properly
  • a tight feeling in the skin
  • thickening of the skin
  • itchy or burning feeling of the area
  • pitting or dimpling of the skin.

Start a symptom diary

Keeping track of your symptoms can help you and your cancer care team to manage them better.

Talk to your doctor or nurse to see if there is a diary they recommend, or use the example provided on this page.

Know who to contact if you have a problem

Ask your doctor or nurse:

  • when you should call for help or advice
  • who you should contact
  • how to contact them (including at night or weekends).

Keep this information where you can easily find it.

Checklists

Use our checklists to find helpful tips or questions to ask.

Managing symptoms

Managing lymphoedema

When managing lymphoedema the aim is to reduce the swelling, improve movement and prevent infections.

You can ask your doctor for a referral to see a lymphoedema therapist to help you manage it. Treatment may include using massage and special pressure garments.

People who have lymphoedema are at risk of getting skin infections. It is important to reduce this risk by trying to avoid damage to the affected area:

Things you can do to protect your skin include:

  • keep the skin moisturised using a non-perfumed moisturiser
  • wear sunscreen when outdoors
  • wear long sleeved garments, trousers, gloves and shoes when gardening
  • take care to avoid cuts or burns when cooking
  • apply insect repellent to prevent bites
  • avoid scratches from pets
  • be careful if shaving the area.

See your doctor as soon as possible if you think you may have a skin infection. Symptoms of this can include redness, swelling, pain or oozing, or feeling generally unwell.

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