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Lowering your risk of lymphoedema

There are many things you can do to lower your risk of lymphoedema after cancer treatment.

Maintaining a healthy weight

Some research suggests that being very overweight (obese) can increase your risk of lymphoedema.

Maintaining a healthy weight is part of being fit and well. Try to eat a healthy well balanced diet and exercise regularly.

Exercise

Research suggests that exercise and movement could help to lower your risk of developing lymphoedema. Most of this evidence comes from research into lymphoedema and breast cancer.

Talk to your physiotherapist or your specialist doctor or nurse before you exercise. They’ll tell you what you can and can’t do after your type of cancer treatment. It is important to build up what you do gradually and get advice if you’re unsure.

There is research showing that early physiotherapy after breast cancer surgery can help to reduce the number of women who develop lymphoedema. This includes exercises that build up movement over time.

Researchers looked into the effect of following a year-long exercise programme, including weight lifting, after breast cancer treatment. They found that weight lifting didn’t increase the risk of lymphoedema and suggested that it might even lower the risk slightly.

Other good exercises include:

  • swimming, use a variety of strokes so you’re not always doing the same movement
  • aerobics, build up gradually if you haven’t done it before and ask at the gym if there's a fitness instructor trained in helping people who have cancer
  • Tai Chi, yoga and water based exercise, you need to find an instructor with training in working with people with cancer

Skin care

Looking after your skin can help to lower your risk of lymphoedema. Any trauma, such as cuts and infections, can increase the risk. Sometimes an infection shows as a spreading red area or red streaks along the limb.

To help look after your skin you should:

  • wash your skin gently and make sure you dry it completely
  • moisturise your skin with a non perfumed lotion such as aqueous cream
  • wear insect repellent to avoid bites and stings
  • be careful when you cut your nails to avoid cutting your skin
  • be careful when removing body hair – using hair removal cream can be better than shaving
  • avoid extremes of temperature, both hot and cold
  • clean and dry any scratches, burns or cuts, then apply an antiseptic cream and a plaster
  • contact your doctor or specialist nurse immediately if the area becomes more swollen, sore, red and hot as you might have an infection

People at risk of developing arm lymphoedema should also:

  • wear gloves when gardening and washing up
  • wear oven gloves to avoid burns when taking things in or out of the oven

Avoiding injections

Most people are advised not to have injections and blood tests in any part of the body where they've had treatment for cancer. This is because there it might increase the risk of developing lymphoedema. Or it may cause an infection that can go on to cause lymphoedema.

There is only anecdotal (word of mouth) evidence for this and we need more research. But for now, it’s probably best to avoid having injections and blood tests in the affected area. This isn't always easy, especially if you're having treatment such as chemotherapy or need regular blood tests.

You might need to explain to the health professional that you're risk of lymphoedema. It can help to have an alert card or bracelet to show them and to remind you about your risk. You can get alert cards or bracelets from the Lymphoedema Support Network (LSN).

Taking blood pressure

Some doctors and specialists advise that you shouldn’t have blood pressure checks on an arm that’s at risk of developing lymphoedema. This is because it may damage small vessels in the lymph system.

There is limited evidence to support this. But until we have more research, it’s best to avoid blood pressure checks on the arm on the side of your cancer treatment.

Air travel

Research suggests that flying does not increase the risk of lymphoedema developing.

Check with your doctor or nurse before flying if you’ve had any early signs of lymphoedema. These signs can include feeling heavy or tight in a limb, or finding that your rings or other jewellery are becoming tight.

Your specialist might say that wearing a compression garment when you fly may help to prevent further problems if you have ever had swelling. 

You need to wear a compression garment before and during a a flight and for a few hours afterwards, if you have lymphoedema. This helps to stop the swelling becoming worse.

You need to be measured for a compression garment by a properly trained specialist. It must fit properly without being too loose or too tight.

If you have never had any signs of lymphoedema, there is some evidence to suggest that you shouldn’t wear compression garments. They might restrict the flow of lymph and increase the risk of swelling.

When you fly, move around as much as you can. Circling your ankles and moving your legs and arms while you are sitting will all help lymph fluid to circulate. Breathing deeply can also help. 

Tips when you're on holiday

  • Avoid extremes of temperature and keep cool as much as possible.
  • Avoid getting sunburned.
  • Use insect repellent.
  • Look after your skin – keep it clean and moisturise it.
  • Clean any cuts, use antiseptic cream, and cover the area
  • Look out for signs of infection such as redness, soreness, swelling and hotness
  • Drink plenty of water
Last reviewed: 
01 Apr 2014
  • Best Practice for the Management of Lymphoedema: an international consensus

    Lymphoedema Framework, 2006

  • Breast cancer-related lymphoedema: implications for primary care

    V Harmer

    British Journal of Community Nursing, 2009

    Volume 14, Issue 10

  • Effectiveness of early physiotherapy to prevent lymphoedema after surgery for breast cancer: randomised, single blinded, clinical trial

    M Torres Lacomba and others

    British Medical Journal, 2010

    Volume 12, Issue 340

  • Guidelines for the diagnosis, assessment and management of lymphoedema

    Clinical Resource Efficiency Support Team (CREST), 2008

  • Reducing the risk of upper limb lymphoedema: guidance for nurses in acute and community settings

    Royal College of Nurses, 2011

  • Weight lifting for women at risk for breast cancer-related lymphedema: a randomized trial

    KH Schmitz and others

    JAMA, 2010

    Volume 304, Issue 24

  • 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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