About lymphoedema and cancer

Lymphoedema (swelling) can sometimes develop due to cancer or cancer treatment.

Cancer and cancer treatment

Lymphoedema develops when lymph fluid 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 might cause lymphoedema. But more often it is caused by cancer treatments. Researchers are finding out more about what causes lymphoedema all the time.

We know that treatment for some types of cancer is more likely to lead to lymphoedema than other types. They include:

  • some women's cancers - breast, vulval, cervical, womb cancer
  • some men's cancers - penile and prostate cancer
  • 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 of lymphoedema 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

For some types of cancer, doctors can do a test called a sentinel node biopsy. This can reduce the need to remove all the lymph nodes and lowers 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 cancer. Doctors can use a dye to show up the sentinel lymph nodes and remove them. You might 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 compared to removing most of the lymph nodes in the area.

Other risk factors

Some other factors can increase your risk of lymphoedema, including:

  • being very overweight
  • being born with a body structure that puts you at higher risk (known as congenital predisposition)
  • varicose veins or other blood vessel problems in the area of the body where you have cancer treatment
  • getting a skin infection in a limb at risk of getting lymphoedema
  • not being able to move around, because that makes it harder for lymph fluid to move through the lymphatic system
Last reviewed: 
09 Aug 2019
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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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