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If the lymph nodes (glands) in the pelvic area become damaged by pelvic radiotherapy or by surgery to remove them, fluid sometimes builds up in one or both legs. This is called lymphoedema|.
The lymph nodes are part of our immune system and help us fight infection. If they’re damaged, lymph fluid, which flows along fine channels between the nodes, can build up.
Lymphoedema after pelvic radiotherapy is not common. The risk depends on the type of cancer you’ve had and on other treatments you’ve received. You’re more at risk if you’ve had an operation to remove the pelvic lymph nodes| as well as pelvic radiotherapy. Lymphoedema can develop months or even years after treatment, causing one or occasionally both legs to become swollen. Rarely, women get swelling in the trunk or genital area.
There are things you can do to reduce your risk of lymphoedema, in particular protecting the skin on your legs and feet. Infections can trigger lymphoedema, so it’s important to avoid damage to the skin. If you get swelling in your foot or leg, always get it checked by your doctor or nurse.
The earlier treatment for lymphoedema begins, the more effective and straightforward it is. If you develop lymphoedema, you should be referred to a clinic for specialist advice. There are lots of things that can be done to reduce the swelling and prevent it getting worse.
At the lymphoedema clinic, you’ll be given advice on caring for your skin. You’ll also be shown positioning exercises and how to do self-massage. A specialist will measure you for a compression garment to wear on the affected leg to reduce the swelling. They may also recommend other treatments for you.
Irene and Betty talk about living with lymphoedema and how it affects their lives day-to-day.
Content last reviewed: 1 July 2012
Next planned review: 2014
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