Lymphoedema after 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. It’s more likely if you’ve had all or a large number of lymph nodes removed.
The risk increases further when radiotherapy is also given to the armpit. If you’ve only had a sentinel lymph node biopsy the risk of getting lymphoedema is small.
There are things you can do to help reduce your chances of developing lymphoedema. Good skin care and protecting your arm and hand are important. Any break in the skin can increase your risk of getting an infection, which may trigger lymphoedema. Here are some tips:
- Keep your skin clean and moisturise every day with unperfumed cream or oil. This will keep skin supple and in good condition.
- Wash small grazes and cuts straight away and cover them if necessary.
- See your GP immediately if you develop signs of infection around the 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 any household tasks, DIY, gardening or when handling animals. Use insect repellent to avoid being bitten.
- Use nail clippers to cut your nails. Don’t push back or cut cuticles.
- Avoid extreme temperatures – don’t use saunas or hot tubs.
- Avoid getting sunburn by covering up in the sun and using 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.
Our section on lymphoedema has more information and videos of others sharing their experiences.