Cancer types

Lymphoedema and breast cancer

Lymphoedema is chronic swelling of the surface tissues of the body, usually an arm or leg, but it can affect other areas. It is a risk factor for people who have had  treatments for several types of cancer including breast, gynaecological, pelvic, head and neck surgery and radiotherapy - particularly if lymph nodes have been removed or damaged. There are even occasional circumstances where cancer can block the lymphatic drainage channels.

This section focuses on lymphoedema information for people who have had breast cancer treatment. Information about lymphodema following other types of cancer treatment is available in our general lymphoedema section.

There is a risk of developing lymphoedema after treatment for breast cancer, although statistics vary as to how many people may be affected. Lymphoedema can occur within a few days, months, or years after treatment.

It doesn't happen to everyone, and there are measures that can be taken to help prevent it developing.

Should lymphoedema develop, if it detected in the early stages it can be comfortably managed.

After surgery
Your breast care team will discuss the risk of lymphoedema and provide you with information about lowering the risk of it occurring. You will be encouraged to start exercising the affected limb after surgery.

Normally, any swelling in the first few weeks post operatively is caused by the body’s response to surgery – and it does settle. If further swelling occurs in your arm, hand or chest wall, after a few weeks/months or years, then you would be advised to contact your Breast Care Team or GP for further advice.

Reducing the risk of developing lymphoedema
It is not clear what causes lymphoedema, but an infection or injury to your ‘at risk’ arm or hand may increase the chance of it developing. Gentle exercise is encouraged, good skin care, including using high factor sun screen, insect repellent, etc. Some tips include having your blood pressure and blood tests taken from the other arm, rather than the affected side. Follow our link to Reducing the risk of lymphoedema (produced by Breast Cancer Care) below .

The symptoms of lymphoedema vary from person to person. The most common symptom is swelling of the arm which can include the hand and fingers. The skin can feel tighter making it difficult to move the arm. Some people may find the swelling causes an aching, heaviness or a pins-and-needles sensation. Others may experience symptoms such as heaviness or aching of the arm but no swelling.

Travel and lymphoedema
You can still travel if you have lymphoedema. It just needs a little planning and forethought. A useful fact sheet 'Holidays and travel for people with lymphoedema' by the Lymphoedema Support Network is available, and is included in our links below.