Lymphoedema and breast cancer treatment
Lymphoedema is a swelling of the arm that sometimes happens after surgery or radiotherapy to the lymph nodes in the armpit. It can develop months or years after treatment.
If you only had a sentinel lymph node biopsy, your risk of lymphoedema is small. Women who had all or a large number of lymph nodes removed are more at risk.
Having radiotherapy to the armpit as well as surgery also increases lymphoedema risk.
There are things you can do to help reduce your chances of developing lymphoedema. It’s 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 it every day with unperfumed cream or oil to keep it in good condition.
- Wash small grazes and cuts straight away, put on antiseptic cream and cover if necessary.
- See your GP straight away if you get signs of infection around a cut, for example, if it becomes red, hot or swollen.
- Avoid needles (blood tests, injections, drips or acupuncture) and having your blood pressure taken in the affected arm.
- Wear gloves and long sleeves when doing household tasks, DIY, gardening or when handling animals/pets.
- Use nail clippers to cut your nails and don’t push back or cut the cuticles – use cuticle cream instead.
- Use an electric razor if you shave under your arms.
- Cover up in the sun and use a suncream with a high sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.
If you notice any swelling in your arm, hand or chest, always get it checked by your doctor or nurse. The earlier lymphoedema is diagnosed, the easier it is to manage and treat successfully.