Lymphoedema after cancer treatment

Lymphoedema is pronounced lim-fo-dee-ma. It is a long-term (chronic) swelling caused by a build-up of fluid in the body’s tissues.  
Lymphoedema can affect any part of the body, but it is most common in the trunk or limbs.
Lymphoedema can develop after cancer if the lymph nodes have been removed during surgery or damaged by radiotherapy.  
The most common places for lymphoedema to occur after cancer treatment are: 
  • In the arm after breast cancer treatment (surgery and/or radiotherapy) to the armpit 
  • In the leg if cancer or its treatment affected the lymph nodes in the groin area or the pelvis – this usually happens after surgery or radiotherapy to the lymph nodes in the groin for prostate cancer, gynecological cancers (cancer of the womb,cervix,ovary or vulva), or a type of skin cancer called melanoma

Where else can lymphoedema occur?

  • In the breast or chest after breast cancer treatment. 
  • In the pelvic area and genitals. This sometimes happens after surgeryor radiotherapy to lymph nodes in the pelvis for cancer of the prostate, bladder, womb, vagina, testis, penis or rectum. 
  • In the neck and face, if lymph nodes in the neck are affected, but this is rare.
Lymphoedema can be uncomfortable and can cause restriction of movement in the affected area. It can develop soon after treatment or years later if an injury or infection has occurred to the affected side. Not everyone who has surgery to remove lymph nodes or radiotherapy to the lymph nodes will get lymphoedema.
The risk of lymphoedema is higher if surgery and radiotherapy are given together in the same area. 

Contact your hospital if you have unexplained swelling following cancer treatment. 

Lymphoedema cannot be cured but swelling can be reduced and the condition managed, particularly when it is diagnosed early. 

What medical help is available for lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema cannot be cured but the swelling can often be kept to a minimum, particularly when it is diagnosed early. Contact your nurse specialist, GP or hospital doctor if you have unexplained swelling following cancer treatment as you will need to be assessed and a treatment planned, if necessary.
Treatment ranges from person to person – from education and skin care advice for patients with mild lymphoedema to more intensive treatment for more severe cases. 
More severe cases may require two phases of treatment: 
1. An intensive phase of therapy, during which you may receive daily treatment by a lymphoedema therapists for up to six weeks. Treatment usually involves massage,skin care, bandaging and wearing a specially measured compression garments.
2. The maintenance phase, where the person continues treatment at home.  
Contact your hospital if you have unexplained swelling following cancer treatment as you will need to be assessed and a treatment planned, if necessary.

How can I cope better with lymphoedema?

With proper education and care lymphoedema can be kept well under control and the swelling can be reduced. Lymphoedema is a condition that never goes away, that is why it is important to be involved in your lymphoedema care.

Keeping up with all the precautions and treatment plans can be demanding, but taking care of yourself and following your doctor or therapist’s advice can help to keep lymphoedema under control.

Here are some tips to help you to cope better:
  • Find out as much as possible about lymphoedema – You might like to look at the links below
  • Ask questions about your condition 
  • Try to be realistic in the goals you set for yourself
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help
  • Talk to others who may be going to similar experience – A support group like Lymphoedema Ireland can help
  • Try to remain positive 

Find out more

Our lymphoedema webpage  and our factsheets  Reducing your Risk of Arm Lymphodema and Reducing your Risk of Leg Lymphodema have more information on lymphoedema and exercise and skincare tips.
Lymphoedema Ireland  – Support, information and other resources for people with lymphoedema living in Ireland. 
Lymphoedema Network Northern Ireland (LNNI) – Northern Ireland-based lymphoedema support and information. 
The Lymphoedema Support Network – UK-based education and support service for people with lymphoedema.
Australasian Lymphology Association – Professional organisation promoting lymphoedema management, research and education, including information and management tips for patients.
Date Last Reviewed: 
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Date Last Revised: 
Tuesday, November 24, 2015