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Lymphoedema after breast cancer treatment

Find out about lymphoedema after breast cancer treatment, including how you can lower your risk of getting it and how to manage it.

Lymphoedema is pronounced lim-fo-dee-ma and means a build up of lymph fluid. 

The lymphatic system carries clear watery fluid called lymph, which drains out from the small blood vessels (capillaries) into the body tissues.

 

Diagram of the lymphatic system

Cancer or cancer treatment can affect the fluid drainage channels of the lymphatic system. Fluid then doesn't drain in the normal way, so the area swells.

About 1 in 5 people (20%) will have lymphoedema of the arm after breast cancer treatment that includes:

  • surgery to remove lymph nodes
  • radiotherapy to the lymph nodes

If lymphoedema is not treated, it may get worse. It can be painful and make it difficult to move your arm.

Lowering your risk of lymphoedema

Sentinel lymph node biopsy

Your surgeon might use a procedure called a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB). They can just remove a few lymph nodes and avoid damaging lymph channels. This can lower your risk of developing lymphoedema.

Infection

Infection in a cut or graze can increase fluid collection in your arm and increase your risk of lymphoedema.

There are things you can do to help:

  • wearing gloves when gardening or doing housework
  • using nail clippers rather than scissors
  • using an electric razor if you shave under your arms
  • take care when playing with pets

If you get a cut or graze, wash it well and cover it up with a plaster or dressing until it's healed.

Go to your GP straightaway if it looks red or swollen. You might need antibiotics.

Heat and sunburn

Severe heat sunburn can increase your risk of lymphoedema. You can:
  • wear factor 50 sunscreen
  • avoid very hot baths and showers
  • use a non scented moisturiser every day to keep your skin moist

Looking after your arm

Putting too much strain on your arm after surgery can increase your risk of lymphoedema. Don't use your arm for anything heavy until your team say you can. You should carry on the arm and shoulder exercises you started after surgery.

Treating lymphoedema

You should see your doctor or breast care nurse as soon as you can, if you notice any swelling in your arm. You might notice your watch strap, rings or clothes feeling tighter.

Moisturise your skin with a non perfumed moisturiser.

Treatment aims to reduce swelling and stop the fluid from building up again. The treatment can take a little while to show results.

You might have:

  • an elastic sleeve to wear to reduce arm swelling
  • an elasticated vest (to reduce breast swelling)
  • your arm bandaged up with a particular type of short-stretch bandage that your lymphoedema specialist puts on
  • exercises that help the fluid to drain from your arm
  • a specialised massage called manual lymphatic drainage (MLD)

You might see a lymphoedema nurse specialist for these treatments. They will measure your arm and talk to you about your symptoms.

Your nurse or lymphoedema specialist can teach you how to do gentle exercises at home to help prevent or decrease swelling in your arm. You'll get the most benefit from the exercises by wearing your sleeve when you are doing the exercises.

Heavy lifting or too much repetitive exercise could make lymphoedema worse. So be sure to stop exercising if your skin is starting to become red, hot and sweaty. 

It can be more difficult to control the swelling if you're overweight. Talk to the dietician at the hospital or your GP if you would like some help with healthy eating tips or losing weight. 

Some people with lymphoedema have said that spicy foods and alcohol can increase the swelling in their arm.

Positioning your arm

You can help stop further swelling in your arm by positioning it carefully. Rest your arm on the table or on cushions when you're sat down.

Tips include:

  • Don't have blood taken from your affected arm.
  • Don’t repeatedly stretch your arm – for example, by hanging out washing on a clothes line.
  • Don't carry heavy shopping with your affected arm- ask for help even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • Wear your watch or jewellery on the other arm.

Your feelings

You may feel very angry, upset and embarrased by the swelling in your arm. After going through treatment for breast cancer, it may feel too much to cope with lymphoedema.

If your arm is very swollen, it can change your self esteem. You might feel less attractive and find it harder to go out and socialise.

If you are feeling very upset and sad about what has happened, do let someone know. Talk to someone you trust. Make an appointment to see your lymphoedema specialist nurse.

You can talk to the Cancer Research UK nurses about living with lymphoedema on 0808 800 4040 Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.
Last reviewed: 
23 Jun 2017
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Blackwell, 2015

  • Quality of life and a symptom cluster associated with breast cancer treatment-related lymphedema.
    S Ridner. Supportive Care In Cancer, 2005. Vol. 13, Issue 11.

  • Incidence of unilateral arm lymphoedema after breast cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis

    T DiSipio and others

    The Lancet Oncology, Volume 14, No. 6, p500–515, May 2013.

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