Lymphoedema after treatment for breast cancer

Your nurse will give you advice on looking after your arm to reduce the risk of swelling.

What is lymphoedema? 

Lymphoedema is a swelling of the arm or hand. It sometimes happens after surgery or radiotherapy to the lymph nodes in the armpit. It usually develops slowly, months or years after treatment.

Lymphoedema is more likely to happen if all, or many, of your lymph nodes were removed. Having radiotherapy to the armpit as well as surgery increases the risk.

If just one or two of the lymph nodes were removed (a sentinel lymph node biopsy), the risk of lymphoedema is low. If you are not sure about what type of lymph node surgery you had, your breast care nurse can tell you.

If you notice any swelling in your arm, hand or chest, always ask your doctor or nurse to check it. The earlier lymphoedema is diagnosed, the easier it is to manage and treat successfully.

Reducing the risk of lymphoedema

There are things you can do to help reduce your chances of developing lymphoedema. It is important to protect your arm and hand, and to look after the skin in that area. Here are some tips:

  • Keep your skin clean and moisturise every day with unperfumed cream or oil to keep it in good condition.
  • Treat even small grazes and cuts straight away. Wash the area thoroughly and cover it if necessary.
  • See your GP immediately if you get any signs of infection around a cut, for example if it becomes red, hot or swollen.
  • Try to avoid needles in the arm on the side that has been treated. This includes blood tests, injections, drips or acupuncture. Avoid having your blood pressure taken in that arm too.
  • Wear gloves and long sleeves when doing household tasks, DIY, gardening or looking after animals.
  • To avoid burns, use oven gloves or pot holders and long sleeves when cooking and baking.
  • Use insect repellent to prevent insect bites. If an insect stings you on or near the affected area, get medical advice.
  • Use nail clippers instead of scissors to cut your nails. Never push back or cut the cuticles. Use cuticle cream instead.
  • Use an electric razor if you shave under your arms. Numbness under the arm is common. It can be easy to cut yourself with a blade razor, especially if you have a bumpy scar.
  • Cover up or use a high sun-protection factor (SPF) cream of at least 30.