Reducing your risk of lymphoedema

Damage to the lymphatic system from cancer or its treatment can increase the risk of lymphoedema. You can do things to reduce your risk.

Lymphoedema risk

We do not know why some people develop lymphoedema and others do not. But following the advice in this section may help to reduce your risk of lymphoedema.

Anyone who has had cancer treatment that affects their lymph nodes is at risk of developing lymphoedema. The risk is greater if:

  • the lymph nodes in the armpit, groin or neck are affected
  • you have had both surgery and radiotherapy to the lymph nodes.

Look after your skin

It is important to keep the area at risk of lymphoedema clean. You should also moisturise it well. This reduces the risk of the area becoming inflamed or infected. It is also important to protect your skin from cuts and grazes, insect bites and sunburn.

Watch for early signs of infection

It is important to be aware of early signs of infection in the area at risk of lymphoedema. Doctors can then treat the infection straight away with antibiotics. Contact your GP straight away if you notice flu-like symptoms, or any of the following signs:

  • redness or warmth in the area that is at risk
  • a new painful swelling in the area that is at risk
  • pain or tenderness in the area that is at risk
  • red streaks that go up or down from the area that is at risk
  • a high temperature or fever.

Try to exercise and keep active

Muscle activity helps improve the flow of lymph fluid in the body. Regular exercise and keeping active encourages the fluid to drain. It also helps with joint movement.

Gentle stretching exercises can help your arm or leg return to normal after surgery or radiotherapy. You should do exercises gently and start gradually. A physiotherapist will usually show you what exercises to do. It is important you do them for as long as they advise after surgery, to help you recover.

After your treatment finishes, you can usually get back to any physical activity or exercise you did before. Or you may decide to do something new. It is important to start slowly and gradually increase the intensity. There may be some exercises you need to be more careful doing. These include lifting heavy weights, or playing physical contact sports. This is because they are more likely to injure the skin or muscles in the area at risk of lymphoedema.

Physical activity will help you feel better generally, and keep your weight down. It encourages deeper breathing, which helps lymph fluid flow. Breathing exercises on their own, or as part of yoga or pilates, can also help. Ask your physiotherapist or specialist nurse for advice about exercise.

Keep to a healthy weight

The risk of getting lymphoedema increases if you are overweight. It is important to try to keep your weight within the normal range for your height. Your GP or practice nurse can tell you your ideal weight for your height. You can also ask them, or a dietitian, for advice and support on healthy eating.

Take care when travelling

Here are some tips to help reduce your risk of developing lymphoedema when travelling:

  • avoid sitting in one position for the whole journey
  • move around often, and do gentle stretching exercises if you are on a plane or train
  • during longer car journeys, make regular stops to get out and walk around
  • wear comfortable clothes and shoes, and avoid tight-fitting clothes
  • use a suitcase on wheels that you can pull, so you do not need to carry a heavy bag.

If you do not have lymphoedema, you do not normally need to wear a compression garment when on a plane. But tell your doctor if you are flying a long distance and have had swelling caused by cancer or its treatment. They will be able to advise you on what to do. They can tell you how helpful a compression garment might be in your situation.

We have more information about travelling when you have lymphoedema.