The lymph nodes (sometimes called lymph glands) are part of our immune system and help us fight infection. Lymph fluid flows along fine channels between the nodes.
Sometimes lymph nodes in the pelvic area become damaged by pelvic radiotherapy or surgery. When this happens, lymph fluid can build up. One or occasionally both legs can become swollen. This is called lymphoedema and it can develop months or years after treatment. Some people get swelling in the genital area or in the lower tummy area, but this is rare.
Lymphoedema is not common after pelvic radiotherapy. But people who had surgery to remove the pelvic lymph nodes as well as pelvic radiotherapy are at a higher risk.
Reducing your lymphoedema risk
There are things you can do to reduce your risk of lymphoedema. In particular, it’s important to protect the skin on your legs and feet. Infections can trigger lymphoedema, so it’s important to avoid damaging your skin.
If you notice swelling in your foot or leg, always get it checked by your doctor or nurse. The earlier lymphoedema is treated, the more effective and straightforward the treatment is.
These are things you can do to reduce your risk of lymphoedema:
- Keep your skin clean and use moisturisers to keep it supple.
- Clean grazes or cuts straightaway, and see your GP if the area gets red, hot or swollen.
- Wear well-fitting shoes.
- Use nail clippers instead of scissors to cut your toenails.
- Cover your skin or use a high-factor sun cream (SPF 30 or above) on sunny days.
- Keep to a healthy weight.
- Keep physically active and avoid standing for too long in the same position.
- If you are travelling, wear compression garments such as flight socks.
If you develop lymphoedema, your GP should refer you to a clinic for specialist advice. There are lots of things that can be done to reduce the swelling and stop it getting worse.
At the lymphoedema clinic, you’ll be given advice on caring for your skin. You’ll also be shown positioning exercises and how to do self-massage. A specialist will measure you for a compression garment to wear on the affected leg to reduce the swelling. They may also recommend other treatments for you.