Lymphoedema can be caused by cancer itself or develop as a side effect of its treatment. Lymphoedema is a condition that can appear months or years after cancer treatment. It can be the result of:
- surgery to remove the lymph nodes
- radiotherapy to the lymph nodes
- cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes or that presses on the lymph vessels.
Lymphoedema can affect different parts of the body, especially the arms and legs. Not everyone who has radiotherapy or surgery to the lymph nodes will get lymphoedema.
If you’re at risk, there are several things you can do to reduce your chances of developing lymphoedema:
- Look after your skin. This means moisturising your skin and avoiding getting cut or scratched.
- Look out for signs of infection. Recognising them will help you get it treated quickly.
- Keep active and exercise. This will stimulate the flow of lymph fluid in the body.
- Keep to a healthy weight.
Take care when traveling. Move around and stretch regularly, and wear comfortable clothes and shoes.
Reducing your risk of getting lymphoedema after treatment
If you have had surgery to remove lymph nodes in your armpit or groin, or radiotherapy in the same area, you will always be at risk of developing lymphoedema. The risk is greater if you have had both surgery and radiotherapy to the lymph nodes.
Some people will have just one or two lymph nodes removed (sentinel lymph node biopsy or SLNB) rather than a complete group of nodes (lymph node clearance). If you have had an SLNB you are still at risk of getting lymphoedema, although the risk is lower. The sentinel node is the first node (or nodes, as there may be more than one) that lymph fluid drains to from a part of the body.
We do not know why some people develop lymphoedema after cancer treatments and others don’t. It’s possible that straining the limb or a skin infection may cause swelling in someone who is at risk of developing lymphoedema.
The body responds to inflammation and infection by producing extra fluid. If the lymphatic system in that area isn’t working as efficiently as it should be, the extra fluid could overload it and lead to lymphoedema.