What is Lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema can be a side effect of some breast cancer treatments. It is a condition that relates to the body’s lymph nodes and it can cause swelling and discomfort.

Lymph nodes are glands that filter and drain fluid that circulates around the body. They are located throughout the body, including in the breast and armpit (axilla).

Lymph nodes are often removed during breast cancer surgery. Sometimes they are damaged by radiotherapy. When lymph nodes are removed or damaged, the natural flow of fluid from your breast and arm can be restricted. When this happens, swelling occurs and it is called lymphoedema.

While there is no known cure for lymphoedema, early diagnosis and treatment make it easier to manage.

It is important to remember that not all women who have lymph nodes removed during their surgery will develop lymphoedema.

Reducing your risk of developing lymphoedema

There are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of developing lymphoedema. These include:

  • Take care of your skin.
  • Keep your skin moist using a moisturising cream such as sorbolene.
  • Protect your skin from the sun with clothing and sunscreen.
  • If shaving your armpit, use an electric razor instead of a wet razor.
  • Use insect repellent and, if bitten, use a product to reduce the itchiness of the bite.
  • Protect your hands with gloves while washing dishes or gardening.
  • Treat any cuts or breaks to the skin with antiseptic.
  • If a cut, bite or break to the skin becomes red or inflamed, or if your arm swells quickly or becomes red and warm, see your doctor as soon as possible as you may have an infection that requires antibiotics.
  • Keep active
  • Keep your BMI within normal range
  • Gentle, regular exercise greatly assists in the treatment of lymphoedema. Muscle movement increases lymph flow and reduces the risk of fluid accumulating.

Symptoms of lymphoedema

Women who have had surgery for breast cancer have a lifetime risk of developing lymphoedema. Lymphoedema can occur any time after surgery. It may even begin many years after your surgery.

Early symptoms include:

  • Swelling of the arm, breast or hand (your rings, sleeves or wristbands may feel tight)
  • Feelings of discomfort, heaviness or fullness in the arm or breast aching, pain, tension in the arm, shoulder, hand, chest or breast area.

If you have any of these symptoms, consult your doctor right away.

Managing lymphoedema

There is no known cure for lymphoedema but there are ways to manage it. Management options include good skin care, gentle exercise, lymphatic drainage massage and the use of compression garments on the affected arm. These treatments are designed to reduce and control swelling, improve your range of movement and prevent infections.

Emerging treatments

A number of new treatments are emerging to help fight lymphoedema. One of these treatments is laser therapy, which aims to soften scar tissue and improve the function of the lymphatic vessels. Another treatment involves the use of pneumatic pumps, which go around the arm and inflate and deflate at intervals. Liposuction is also now being used in some areas of Australia to remove fluid from the affected limb.

Further research is still needed on the effectiveness of these treatments. You may like to talk to your doctor or lymphoedema practitioner if you are interested in learning more about these options.

  • Westmed Breast Cancer Institute
  • Breast Care Surgeons of Australia New Zealand
  • University of Sydney
  • University of Woolongong
  • Royal Australasian College of Surgeons
  • Royal Hospital for Women
  • prime wales hospital
  • BreastScreen Australia