Five FAQs about lymphedema

Becky Eggleston, RN OCN, is one of four oncology nurses with the U-M Cancer AnswerLine™

Becky Eggleston, RN OCN, is one of four oncology nurses with the U-M Cancer AnswerLine™

Our bodies have a network of lymph vessels and lymph nodes. This network collects fluid, debris and other things that are in the body’s tissue, outside the bloodstream. Lymph vessels are a lot like the veins that collect and carry blood through the body. But instead of carrying blood, these vessels carry the clear watery fluid called lymph. Here is information about lymphedema, a medical condition affecting this network.

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is swelling that happens when the flow of lymph fluid is damaged or blocked, and as a result does not drain normally. When the lymph fluid cannot drain, it collects under the skin and in the soft tissues of the body making the affected area feel heavy, tight and painful. Lymphedema usually involves an arm or leg, but other parts of the body can also be affected.

Why does lymphedema happen?

For those with a cancer diagnosis, lymphedema can develop as a result of surgery, radiation therapy treatment or tumor growth.

Lymphedema sometimes happens after surgery to remove lymph nodes (to see if cancer has spread) if the lymph nodes remaining are unable to get the job done. Radiation therapy can cause scarring and damage to lymph nodes and lymph vessels blocking lymph flow, and tumor growing near lymph nodes can block the flow of lymph fluid.

Will I know if I have lymphedema?

Onset of symptoms can happen quickly or may develop slowly over months or years following treatment. Notify your doctor if you notice:

  • aching, pain, tightness or heaviness in arm or leg
  • swelling in all or part of a hand, arm, foot or leg

It’s important to remember that swelling can also be caused by other medical conditions – for example, an infection, injury or blood clot. Depending on the situation, the doctor may order an ultrasound, MRI CT scan or other imaging tests to determine what is causing swelling.

Can lymphedema be prevented?

People that have had treatment for common cancer types- including breast,  head & neck, prostate, testicular and melanoma skin cancer (and other cancers) are at an increased risk for developing lymphedema. Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with lymphedema there are some things you can do to reduce your risk:

  • See your doctor regularly to be screened for lymphedema and have measurements taken of the at risk area.
  • Contact your doctor and report any swelling, pain, and/or changes in the skin.
  •  Maintain a healthy weight and exercise regularly.
  • Practice good skin hygiene: use moisturizers to prevent skin cracking, sunscreen to protect from sunburn and insect repellent to ward off insect bites.
  • Learn all you can, understand your personal risk, and develop a plan for reducing the possibility of lymphedema by talking to your doctor or other health professional  familiar with lymphedema.

What do I need to know if I have lymphedema?

If you have had a diagnosis of lymphedema it’s good to know that treatment focuses on minimizing flare, controlling swelling, reducing pain, and keeping mobility. Some things you can do:

  • Early detection and treatment have better outcomes.
  • Talk to your doctor about treatment options, and schedule appointments with a trained lymphedema therapist.
  • Take precautions to control lymphedema from getting worse.
  • Find support in others experiencing lymphedema. Sharing resources, experiences, and information can help in managing the impact of lymphedema on your daily life.

Continue learning about lynphedema:


becky1The Cancer AnswerLine™ is a dedicated phone line at the Comprehensive Cancer Center that is staffed by oncology nurses five days a week, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. at 800-865-1125. They have a combined 105 years of experience helping patients and their families who have questions about cancer.



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