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About lymphoedema and cancer

Lymphoedema can sometimes develop as a result of either cancer or cancer treatment.

Lymphoedema develops when lymph isn’t able to drain in the normal way. Lymph 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 lymph nodes 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 will get lymphoedema, so we need more research to find out. 

Who gets lymphoedema?

Any cancer that affects the lymph nodes may cause lymphoedema. But it is more likely that some cancer treatments will cause lymphoedema. Researchers are finding out more about this all the time.

We know that treatment for some cancers is more likely to lead to lymphoedema than others. They include cancers like:

  • 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

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.

Sentinel 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 lower 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 in a limb at risk of getting lymphoedema
  • not being able to move around, which makes it more difficult for the lymph fluid to move through the lymphatic system
Last reviewed: 
07 Jun 2017
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  •  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.

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