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This section is for people who don’t have lymphoedema but are at risk of getting it.
If you’ve had surgery to remove lymph nodes in your armpit or groin, and/or radiotherapy| in the same area, you are at an increased risk of developing lymphoedema. The risk is greater if you’ve had both surgery and radiotherapy to the lymph nodes.
It’s not clear why some people develop lymphoedema after certain cancer treatments and others don’t. It’s thought some things, such as a skin infection, may trigger lymphoedema in someone who’s at risk of it.
The body responds to infection by producing extra fluid to help fight the infection. If the lymphatic system in that area isn’t working as efficiently as it should be, an infection could overload it and trigger lymphoedema.
Following the precautions and advice in this section may help to reduce your risk of lymphoedema or delay its development.
Looking after the skin on the area that’s at risk of lymphoedema is very important. Keeping it clean and well moisturised reduces the risk of inflammation or getting a skin infection. There’s also less risk of getting cracks or cuts in skin that’s well moisturised and supple. Any break in the skin can make you more likely to get an infection in that area.
It’s also important to protect the limb (arm or leg) that’s at risk:
It’s important to recognise the early signs of an infection in the arm or leg at risk of lymphoedema. You can then have the infection treated immediately with antibiotics before it puts stress on the lymphatic system. Contact your GP straight away if you notice any of the following signs of infection:
Gentle stretching exercises help to get the normal use of your arm or leg back after surgery or radiotherapy. In particular, they may help reduce the risk of lymphoedema in women with breast cancer after surgery to remove lymph nodes| under the arm. They should be done gently and gradually to help the body develop new pathways to drain lymph fluid without creating more damage. A physiotherapist will usually show you exercises to help with your arm and shoulder, or leg, movement after treatment.
Exercise is an important part of recovery after surgery to remove lymph nodes and it’s important to carry on with it for as long as advised. It may be helpful to continue with your exercises even after this period as it helps keep your joints and muscles working well.
After your treatment is over you can usually get back to any exercise programme you were involved in before, or begin a new one. There may be some exercises you’ll need to be more careful about, such as weightlifting or contact sports, that make you more likely to get a break in the skin or an injury in the affected limb.
Ask your physiotherapist or nurse for advice about exercise. You may also find our section on exercise after cancer treatment useful.
Being overweight can increase the risk of getting lymphoedema so keeping to a healthy weight may help.
Try to keep your weight within the normal range for your height. Your GP can tell you what your ideal weight should be. You can also ask them, or a dietitian, for nutritional advice and support. There’s more information about keeping your weight healthy in our section on taking care of yourself.
Our section on eating well after cancer treatment| has some helpful tips on diet.
Content last reviewed: 1 August 2010
Next planned review: 2013
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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