Experiencing Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a potential side effect of cancer treatment and can appear in some patients months or even years after treatment ends. The lymphatic system helps the immune system fight off infection and clears debris from the body by circulating a thin, clear fluid through tissues. The lymph nodes act as filters, removing harmful substances from the lymph fluid which then drains back into the blood stream.

Lymphedema occurs when an abnormal buildup of that fluid causes swelling and usually happens when lymph nodes are removed or damaged. This can happen when part of the lymph system is damaged or blocked, such as during surgery to remove lymph nodes, or radiation therapy. Cancers that block lymph vessels can also cause lymphedema.

Learn more about lymphedema


How can I manage lymphedema?

  • Protect your skin. Use lotion to avoid dry skin. Use sunscreen. Wear plastic gloves with cotton lining when working in order to prevent scratches, cuts, or burns. Keep your feet clean and dry. Keep your nails clean and short to prevent ingrown nails and infection. Avoid tight shoes and tight jewelry.
  • Exercise. Work to keep body fluids moving, especially in places where lymphedema has developed. Start with gentle exercises that help you to move and contract your muscles. Ask your doctor or nurse what exercises are best for you.
  • Manual lymph drainage. See a trained specialist (a certified lymphedema therapist) to receive a type of therapeutic massage called manual lymph drainage. Therapeutic massage works best to lower lymphedema when given early, before symptoms progress.

Questions to ask your health care team

At City of Hope, prior to your cancer treatment our certified lymphedema therapists will meet with you to collect diagnostic baseline measurements, educate you about how to reduce your lymphedema risk, teach you what symptoms to look for, and answer any questions or concerns. We are also one of a small number of cancer centers in the U.S. that offers microsurgery treatment for lymphedema.
  • What can I do to prevent these problems?
  • What symptoms should I call you about?
  • What steps can I take to feel better?
  • Would you recommend that I see a certified lymphedema therapist?
  • If lymphedema advances, what special garments should I wear during the day? During the night?

We have resources available to you

  • We offer occupational therapists specializing in lymphedema treatments, including weekly massages to help move the lymphatic fluid out of the affected area and back into the lymphatic system. Our therapists also teach at-home exercises, such as stretching, strengthening and range-of-motion techniques to improve the movement of fluid and increase use of the affected limb.
  • Find helpful information, education and support in the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center, including support groups, education classes, music therapy, art therapy and more.
  • Visit the Supportive Services Events Calendar for class descriptions, dates and to reserve your spots.