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What is Lymphedema?

An important aspect of the cancer services we offer here at Southeastern Med is making sure all of our patients and their families are prepared and well informed about potential side effects related to their treatment. Today we’re going to talk in more detail about one of those possible side effects: a condition called lymphedema. 

What is Lymphedema?  And What Causes it?

When lymph nodes are removed during surgery–or affected by radiation therapy, infection or trauma–fluid cannot drain well through the lymphatic system. This blockage can cause swelling, thickening of the skin, and infections. It’s important to know that if you are going through cancer treatment at an advanced age, are overweight, or you have arthritis, you are most at risk for lymphedema.

There is currently no cure for lymphedema. But if it’s caught early, you can manage the symptoms more easily.

What are Lymph Nodes?

The human body has over 600 lymph nodes in places such as the neck, underarm, groin, belly, and spine. These lymph nodes form a system, called the lymphatic system, which removes about two to four liters of fluid containing waste material from your cells and tissues each day. When that fluid gets backed up, it can lead to swelling.


Lymphedema can happen from the time of surgery up to three years after surgery. Studies have found that 80-90% of cancer patients will develop lymphedema within three years of treatment. 

Symptoms include:

  • Swelling (usually in arms and legs, but can include hands, fingers and shoulders)
  • Hardening of skin
  • Problems with your range of motion
  • Soreness or discomfort
  • A tight feeling in the area
  • Itchiness or a burning sensation
  • Trouble sleeping

Coping Mechanisms and Prevention

For some, having lymphedema can mean a struggle with daily activities or work, as well as emotional impacts that may lead to a desire to isolate yourself.  There are some things you can do to help prevent lymphedema:

  • If you notice symptoms, talk to your doctor right away
  • Achieve and maintain a normal body weight
  • Exercise (talk to your doctor first – weight lifting has shown to be helpful)
  • Avoid trauma to the breast/arm on the affected side
  • Avoid saunas and other sources of extreme heat
  • Avoid carrying heavy bags on your shoulder or in your hand on the affected side

If you have had or will have surgery to treat your cancer, ask your surgeon if your lymph nodes or lymph vessels will be affected during the operation. For radiation, ask your radiation oncologist if the radiation will be aimed at lymph nodes.  If the answer is yes for either or both scenarios, you might want to take some proactive measures that could help you prevent lymphedema from occurring or lessen its symptoms. Options include:

  • Washing your hands, including your nails, frequently. Even a tiny scratch or a bug bite can be a vessel for bacteria to enter the body, and infections can lead to lymphedema.
  • Wearing loose clothing and not crossing your legs when you sit. This can help avoid blocking the flow of fluids in your body. You want to help them run through smoothly, so they don’t back up and build up.  

Lymphedema affects three to five million cancer patients, so it’s important to be aware of the warning signs and to remember that if you are diagnosed, you’re not alone. If you start to notice any symptoms, talk to your doctor and see what next steps are right for you.

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