Lymphoedema that is caused by cancer treatments or the cancer itself can be due to the following:
- Surgery to remove lymph nodes. This can interrupt the normal flow of the lymphatic system, leading to a build-up of fluid in the affected area.
- Radiotherapy to the lymph nodes. This can cause scar tissue (hardening of the tissue) that blocks the flow of lymph fluid.
- Cancer cells that spread to the lymph nodes. This can cause a blockage, leading to a build-up of fluid.
- A nearby cancer that is pressing on the lymph vessels. This can cause a blockage in the lymph nodes close by.
Lymphoedema after cancer treatment
Lymphoedema can develop weeks, months or even years after cancer treatment. The most common places for lymphoedema to occur after cancer treatment are the following:
- In the arm after breast cancer treatment (surgery or radiotherapy) to the armpit.
- In the leg if cancer or its treatment affects the lymph nodes in the pelvis or groin area. This usually happens after surgery or radiotherapy for gynaecological cancers (cancer of the womb, cervix, ovary, or vulva) or anal cancer. Or it can happen after treatment to the lymph nodes in the groin for a type of skin cancer called melanoma.
Other areas lymphoedema can develop in are:
- the breast or chest area, after breast cancer treatment
- the pelvic area and genitals after surgery and/or radiotherapy to lymph nodes in the pelvis for cancers of the prostate, bladder, womb, vagina, testicles, penis or rectum
- the face, head and neck after surgery or radiotherapy to lymph nodes in the neck.
It’s common to get swelling (oedema) near the surgery scar in the first days after surgery. This usually settles down gradually, but can take several weeks to go away completely. This type of swelling is not the same as lymphoedema.
Lymphoedema develops a few months or years after surgery to remove the lymph nodes. If you’re concerned about any swelling, always talk to your doctor or nurse.
Not everyone who has lymph nodes removed or radiotherapy to the lymph nodes will get lymphoedema, but there is a risk of developing it.