What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is an abnormal swelling caused by a build up of lymph fluid in the body’s tissues. The fluid gets backed up when the lymphatic pathways are damaged or blocked.

Lymphedema happens most often in an arm or leg but can also happen in other parts of the body.

The World Health Organization estimates that lymphedema affects 250 million people worldwide.

The disease is classified as primary lymphedema, which is hereditary and rare, or secondary lymphedema. Secondary lymphedema is caused by damage or blockage to a normal lymphatic system due to injury, cancer, infection or cancer treatments such as surgery or radiation.

Lymphedema is a common concern for people facing cancer and even after treatment has ended. Here, Registered Nurse Ingrid White and Occupational Therapist Leslie Gibson, answer some common questions about cancer-related lymphedema.

Are some people more at-risk for lymphedema? Do some cancer types make people more at-risk?

Patients who have had surgery to remove lymph nodes or radiation therapy to the lymph nodes are at risk for developing Secondary Lymphedema. This risk is life-long, meaning that even years after your cancer treatment, you could have lymphedema.

Obesity and infections to the surgical/radiated area can also increase risk of developing lymphedema.

Lymphedema is more common in breast, melanoma, head and neck cancers, as well as in some gynecological cancers when there has been surgery to remove lymph nodes or radiation to lymph nodes.

What can people do about lymphedema?

Getting help early will lead to better outcomes if you develop lymphedema following cancer treatment. Please speak to your healthcare team right away if you notice swelling.

Lymphedema is managed by complete decongestive therapy (CDT): compression garments (not just sleeves), compression bandaging, manual lymphatic drainage + self-massage, exercise, practicing good skin care, maintaining a healthy body weight.

If I have lymphedema after cancer treatment, will it go away?

Lymphedema is considered to be a chronic condition and it can affect your life after cancer for many years. As mentioned above, proper skin care, lifestyle choices, manual lymphatic drainage, bandaging and compression garments, and exercise can all work together to help manage lymphedema and minimize its affect on your quality of life.

It’s important to remember, if symptoms are found and treated early, lymphedema can be controlled and managed quite well. Even if not treated early, there are still ways to help manage lymphedema. Please speak to your healthcare team.

About the author

Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.