Decorative image

About lymphoedema and cancer

Lymphoedema can sometimes develop as a result of either cancer or cancer treatment. Some people are more likely to get lymphoedema than others.

Lymphoedema develops when lymph isn’t able to drain in the normal way and collects in an area of the body, causing swelling.

Lymphoedema related to cancer might develop when:

  • the cancer blocks a lymph node or some lymph vessels
  • you have treatment for cancer that removes or damages part of the lymphatic system

Cancer treatments that can cause lymphoedema include:

  • surgery, especially if the surgeon needs to remove lymph nodes during the operation
  • radiotherapy to treat cancer in the lymph nodes or an area of the body where there are lymph nodes
  • a combination of the two treatments

Not everyone who has cancer or cancer treatment develops lymphoedema. We don’t know exactly how many people do develop it, so we need more research to find out. 

Who gets lymphoedema?

Any cancer that affects the lymph nodes may cause lymphoedema. Researchers are finding out more about this all the time.

We know that some cancers are more likely to lead to lymphoedema than others. They include:

  • some women's cancers - breast, vulval, cervical, womb
  • some men's cancers - penile and prostate
  • bladder cancer
  • lymphoma
  • melanoma
  • skin cancer
  • head and neck cancer

We also know that:

  • about 2 out of 10 people (20%) with breast cancer develop lymphoedema
  • about 5 out of every 10 women (50%) who have treatment for cancer of the vulva get lymphoedema
  • about 3 out of every 10 men (30%) with cancer of the penis get lymphoedema
  • the number of people who get lymphoedema after treatment for melanoma in the lymph nodes in the groin varies. Research shows lymphoedema occurs in about 2 and 5 out of every 10 people (20 to 50%)

How likely is lymphoedema?

Your doctor or specialist nurse will tell you if your cancer or treatment is likely to increase your risk of lymphoedema. Wherever possible, doctors plan treatment to try to avoid damage to the lymph nodes.

Your risk may be higher if you have:

  • surgery to the lymph nodes
  • radiotherapy to the lymph nodes or to an area of the body where there are lymph nodes
  • complications after surgery to the lymph nodes, such as infection
  • advanced cancer

For many types of cancer, doctors remove the lymph nodes closest to the tumour to see if they contain cancer cells. This can help to show if the cancer has spread and whether you need further treatment. But removing the lymph nodes increases the risk of lymphoedema.

Sentinal node biopsy

In some types of cancer, doctors now do a test called a sentinel node biopsy. This can reduce the need to remove all the lymph nodes, which helps to reduce the risk of lymphoedema.

The sentinel node is the first lymph node (or first few nodes) that fluid drains to from the area of the tumour. Doctors can use a dye to show up the sentinel lymph nodes and remove them. You may not need treatment to other lymph nodes in the area if there are no cancer cells in the sentinel nodes.

Removing the sentinel nodes can also damage the lymph system. So this can still cause lymphoedema. But the risk is much lower than having most of the lymph nodes in the area removed.

Other risk factors

There are other factors that can increase your risk of lymphoedema, including:

  • being very overweight
  • being born with a body structure that puts you at higher risk (congenital predisposition)
  • varicose veins or other blood vessel problems in the area of the body where you are having cancer treatment
  • getting a skin infection after surgery or radiotherapy
  • not being able to move around, which makes it more difficult for the lymph fluid to move through the lymphatic system
Last reviewed: 
01 Apr 2014
  • Best Practice for the Management of Lymphoedema: an international consensus

    Lymphoedema Framework, 2006

  • Cancer and its Management (6th Edition)

    J Tobias and D Hochhauser

    Wiley - Blackwell, 2010

  • Guidelines for the diagnosis, assessment and management of lymphoedema

    Clinical Resource Efficiency Support Team (CREST), 2008

  • Lymphedema beyond breast cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cancer-related secondary lymphedema

    JN Cormier and others

    Cancer, 2010

    Volume 116, Issue 22

  • Ross and Wilson Anatomy and Physiology in Health and Illness (11th Edition)

    A Waugh and A Grant

    Churchill and Livingstone, 2010

  •  The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.