Lymphoedema is the swelling of an arm, leg or other part of the body because of an abnormal build-up of a fluid called lymph in the body tissues.
Causes of lymphoedema
If a lymph vessel or node becomes blocked, the lymph fluid is unable to pass along it. Because the excess tissue fluid cannot drain away normally, it builds up and causes swelling. The medical name for swelling is oedema (pronounced e-dee-ma). When the swelling is due to a problem in the lymph system, it is called lymphoedema.
Lymphoedema is not always related to cancer.
Also called secondary lymphoedema, this is caused by cancer or its treatment. It can occur if the lymph nodes are blocked with cancer or if they have been removed by surgery. Radiotherapy can also cause lymphoedema by causing a build-up of scar tissue within the lymph nodes. It is most common in people with breast, gynaecological and prostate cancer and melanoma.
Not everyone who has radiotherapy to the lymph nodes will get lymphoedema. Lymphoedema is more likely to occur if surgery and radiotherapy are both given together to the same area – for example, when lymph nodes are removed from the armpit during surgery for breast cancer and the area is then treated with radiotherapy.
Surgery or radiotherapy given on their own to a part of the body is less likely to result in lymphoedema.
Lymphoedema can occur very soon after treatment or may occur many years later.
If you are at risk of developing lymphoedema there are steps that you can take to minimise your risk.
Infection and swelling increases your risk so use sunscreen to avoid sunburn. Insect repellants should be applied to reduce the risk of insect bites. Any insect bites or scratches or cuts should be treated promptly by cleaning and applying antiseptic cream.
Movement is crucial to lymph drainage and you should maintain an active lifestyle. Daily exercise such as walking or swimming is recommended. Weight should be kept within healthy limits because being overweight increases the risk of lymphoedema developing.
If you do develop any swelling ask for referral to a lymphoedema therapist. Early referral means treatment is less intensive and much more likely to be successful.