Reducing your risk of lymphoedema
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’re at risk of developing lymphoedema. The risk is greater if you’ve had both surgery and radiotherapy to the lymph nodes.
People who have had sentinel lymph node biopsy (SNLB) are still at risk of getting lymphoedema, although the risk is lower. The sentinel node (or nodes, as there may be more than one) is the first node that lymph fluid from a part of the body drains to.
It’s not clear why some people develop lymphoedema after certain cancer treatments and others don’t. It’s thought that some things, such as overuse of a limb (causing inflammation) or a skin infection, may trigger swelling in someone who’s at risk of developing lymphoedema.
The body responds to inflammation and infection by producing extra fluid to help deal with it. If the lymphatic system in that area isn’t working as efficiently as it should be, the extra fluid could overload it and lead to lymphoedema.
Following the precautions and advice in this section may help to reduce your risk of lymphoedema.
Looking after the skin in the area that’s at risk of lymphoedema is very important. Keeping it clean and well moisturised reduces the risk of inflammation and infection. It’s also important to protect it from cuts and grazes, as well as insect bites and sunburn.
Look out for the early signs of infection
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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 flu-like symptoms and any of the following signs of infection:
redness or warmth in the limb that’s at risk
painful swelling in a limb that wasn’t swollen before
pain or discomfort in the limb that’s at risk
red streaks that go up or down from the affected area.
Try to exercise and keep active
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Gentle stretching exercises help your arm or leg get back to normal after surgery or radiotherapy. They may help reduce the risk of lymphoedema in women with breast cancer who have had surgery to remove lymph nodes under the arm.
Exercises should be done gently and gradually. Exercise helps with joint mobility and encourages lymph to drain. A physiotherapist will usually show you what exercises to do.
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 your wound has healed.
After your treatment is over you can usually get back to any physical activity or exercise programme you were involved in before, or begin a new one. It’s important to start slowly and gradually increase the intensity. There may be some exercises you’ll need to be more careful about, such as weightlifting or contact sports. This is because they make you more likely to get a break in the skin or an injury in the affected limb.
Physical activity will help you feel better generally and help to keep your weight down. It also encourages deeper breathing, which stimulates lymph flow. Breathing exercises on their own or as part of yoga or pilates can also be beneficial.
Ask your physiotherapist or nurse for advice about exercise. You may find our section on physical activity and cancer treatment useful.
Keep to a healthy weight
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Being overweight can increase the risk of developing lymphoedema, so 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 advice and support on eating healthily.
Take care when travelling
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Here are some tips on what you can do to reduce your risk of developing lymphoedema when travelling:
avoid sitting in one position throughout the journey
move around frequently and do gentle stretching exercises when travelling by air or train
during longer car journeys, make regular stops and get out and walk around
wear comfortable clothes and shoes, and avoid anything tight-fitting or restricting
wear flight socks that fit well
use luggage on wheels that can be pulled instead of picking up or carrying heavy luggage.
If you’re at risk of getting lymphoedema, you don’t normally need to wear a compression garment when travelling by air.