Coping With Lymphedema: A Patient Guide (Fact Sheet)

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Bandages or compression garments are used to reduce the selling common to lymphedema.
Bandages or compression garments are used to reduce the selling common to lymphedema.

Lymphedema is a common side effect of cancer treatment. By learning about this diagnosis and its treatment options, communicating with your health care team, and surrounding yourself with a support network, you will be better able to manage your lymphedema and experience a better quality of life.

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a painful swelling that happens when your body's lymphatic fluid is unable to circulate properly and builds up in your soft tissues. People with cancer who have undergone lymph node removal and/or radiation as part of their treatment are at risk for developing lymphedema. Lymphedema most commonly occurs in the arms or legs. Lymphedema can be managed successfully with a combination of medical treatment, lifestyle changes and at-home remedies.

Who Gets Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is somewhat unpredictable and doctors do not fully understand why some people develop lymphedema and others do not. People who have had several lymph nodes removed and/or radiation treatment in the axillary area (underarms) during cancer treatment are at higher risk of developing lymphedema.

Lymphedema can occur after treatment for any type of cancer, but it is most commonly associated with breast cancer, prostate cancer, lymphoma, melanoma and cancers in the pelvic area such as bladder, testicular or gynecological cancers. Obesity, lack of exercise and infections after surgery are also risk factors.

Communicating With Your Health Care Team About Lymphedema

Talk to your doctor about your risk for developing lymphedema. Be sure to report any symptoms you experience related to lymphedema. Having complete, accurate information about lymphedema from your doctor or nurse can help you feel prepared to manage this condition.

Signs and symptoms of lymphedema:

  • Swelling in the arm or leg (clothes or jewelry feel tighter)
  • Arm or leg feeling heavy or tight
  • Weakness, decreased flexibility, difficulty moving
  • The skin thickens (hyperkeratosis) or hardens
  • Pain and redness in the arm, hand, leg or foot  
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