Lymphedema is swelling in the arms, legs or middle part of the body, sometimes referred to as the trunk. The swelling is caused by a buildup of fluid beneath the skin. Cancer and cancer treatment can result in blocked or damaged lymph nodes, which lead to lymphedema. Lymphedema can develop soon after treatment, or weeks, months or even years later.
Who Gets Lymphedema?
Anyone who has had cancer or cancer treatment is at risk for lymphedema. Lymphedema is most common among people who have had breast cancer, melanoma, lymphoma, head and neck cancer or cancers affecting the pelvic area including gynecologic, urinary tract and prostate cancers. Procedures that put you at greater risk for developing lymphedema include:
- Lumpectomy or mastectomy
- Surgery that affects the groin or armpit area, including surgeries for prostate and gynecological cancers and melanoma
- Radiation therapy
- Procedures to find cancerous lymph nodes that use dyes and radioactive substances
Other factors such as obesity, skin that is slow to heal, diabetes and the use of certain medications such as steroids may also increase your risk of lymphedema.
Symptoms of Lymphedema
Talk with a doctor or other member of your health care team if you suspect you have lymphedema. Watch for these signs:
- Swelling in any part of the body
- Tingling feeling in the arms or legs
- Changes in the color, feeling or texture of your skin
- Muscle weakness or difficulty bending or moving
- Itchiness, burning sensation or heavy feeling in the arms or legs
There is no sure way to prevent lymphedema, but it can help to take special care of the part of your body that is at risk. Talk with your doctor to find out if there are any treatments that can help. Follow these precautions:
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- When possible, avoid shots, needles, finger sticks, blood pressure checks or blood draws in the arm or leg that might be at risk for lymphedema (the post-surgery side).
- Keep the skin of the at-risk limb clean and gently moisturized.
- Make sure the at-risk arm or leg gets proper circulation. Avoid sitting or standing in the same position for long periods of time.
- Lift the arm above the heart occasionally.
- Wear loose-fitting clothing. Avoid tight clothing and jewelry around the affected area.
- Avoid heavy lifting, rigorous movements or too much pressure on the affected limb.
- Exercise. Work with a lymphedema specialist or physical therapist to develop a safe exercise program.
- Limit time in extreme temperatures, such as very hot showers. Avoid saunas, hot tubs and the use of ice or heating pads in affected areas.
- Try to avoid injury and infection to the affected area.
- If a prosthetic is needed, choose one that is lightweight.
- Take special precautions when traveling—ask for guidance from a lymphedema specialist.
- Watch for even a slight increase in size or swelling of the arm, hand, fingers, chest wall, trunk or legs. Contact your doctor if you notice these symptoms.