Swelling (lymphoedema)

Cancers and their treatments can sometimes cause swelling in the tissues under the skin. It can affect an arm, leg or other part of the body. This is called lymphoedema. It may develop months or years after cancer treatment. 

The information on this page will help you to find out more about cancer-related lymphoedema, its prevention and management.

Lymphoedema and cancer

If you have cancer which needs treatment involving the lymph nodes, then swelling of the tissue under your skin can sometimes develop. Known as ‘lymphoedema’, it most commonly affects an arm or leg. Other areas of the body can also develop lymphoedema.

Lymphoedema is a side effect which can occur weeks, months or sometimes years after treatment. It is useful to know what to look out for. If the symptoms are treated early, it can help prevent further problems.

Lymphoedema is long term swelling of the body’s tissues, so shouldn’t be confused with temporary swelling that can happen in the first few days post surgery. 

People with certain types of cancer are more at risk of developing lymphoedema. These include breast, gynaecological, pelvic, head and neck surgery and radiotherapy - particularly if lymph nodes have been removed or damaged. 

Sometimes the cancer itself can block lymphatic drainage.


Symptoms of lymphoedema include swelling, heaviness and aching of the affected area. For example, someone who has has lymph glands removed from their axilla (armpit), may experience swelling of the fingers, hand and/or arm.

Lymphoedema can also have an emotional impact - as it can feel a visual reminder of your cancer, and what you’ve been through.

Managing lymphoedema

First of all, there are a number of things you can do to help reduce your risk of developing lymphoedema. These include:

  • Good skin care -  washing and drying carefully, and using a non-perfumed moisturiser.  Rather than shaving the area, use a hair removal cream, to help prevent skin nicks.  Avoid extremes of temperature for any length of time.
  • Protect your skin -  wear a high factor sun tan lotion or preferably cover up the area when out in the sun. The skin is sensitive, and can easily burn.
  • If your arm needs protecting, wear gardening gloves whilst tending your plants, and use an oven glove to protect your hand from a burn.
  • Insect repellent can help prevent bites - and watch out for pet’s teeth and claws.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight - easier said than done sometimes, but being overweight can be a risk factor for lymphoedema.
  • If possible avoid blood tests, injections and tight blood pressure cuffs on the affected limb. The aim is to prevent any breaks or damage to the skin that may lead to an infection.
  • Exercise - keeping yourself moving and gentle exercise helps keep the circulation active, including the lymphatic system. 
  • Look out for signs of local infection -  if you notice you have a cut, scratch or insect bite then wash it well, and apply antiseptic cream. If you see any redness, heat, swelling or pain then let your doctor know, as you may need antibiotics.

For some people, lymphoedema still develops. If you notice swelling, heaviness or aching in a limb or in an area where you have had cancer treatment, contact your GP or healthcare team, as early diagnosis can help it developing further. You are likely to be referred to a specialist lymphoedema clinic for treatment.

Lymphoedema treatment

For early lymphoedema, the aim of treatment is to reduce the swelling, help prevent infection, and encourage healthy eating and exercise. You’ll be given a series of exercises to help with movement and to ease symptoms.

The specialist nurse will teach you gentle massage/manual drainage to help reduce the swelling.  

You may be fitted with a ‘compression’ garment, such as a sleeve, glove or stocking, depending which area is affected. This helps reduce the swelling and encourage drainage. 

For more severe lymphoedema you may have a more intensive treatment programme, involving use of lymphatic drainage, compression bandaging, physiotherapy, and skin care.

Emotional impact of lymphoedema

Coping with the feelings around lymphoedema can be hard. It’s a daily reminder of your cancer and its treatment. You may feel self conscious wearing the compression garments, or that your limb is swollen. 

Talking about your feelings can help you feel less alone - knowing that others are going through the same experience. Joining a support group, and/or visiting your local Maggie’s centre can help you address the feelings you may be experiencing.

You can also learn about exercise, relaxation, stress management and healthy eating - so that you are able to help control the physical and emotional impact of lymphoedema.

When to seek further help

If you develop signs of infection in that area, including heat, warmth, redness swelling, or have a raised temperature, let your GP, specialist nurse or hospital team know.  You may need antibiotics.

Living with lymphoedema, can sometimes trigger feelings of depression and low self esteem. If this is happening, tell your doctor about how you feel - they understand the emotions you’re experiencing, and can refer you on for further support.

What now?

Have a look at our blogs and links on this page to find out more about lymphoedema and cancer.

Talk with others about what you are experiencing. It can help to hear that what you’re feeling is not unusual, and help you feel less alone. 

Call into your local Maggie’s centre to talk to our professional teams and connect with others in a similar position to yourself.

Last review: Feb 2022 | Next review: Sep 2023

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