Is Lymphedema Related to Cancer? Understanding the Connection

It’s an unsettling thought – what happens when our lymphatic system stops working efficiently? Those experiencing lymphedema can attest to the difficulties – the swelling, the discomfort and sometimes, the pain. But did you know that lymphedema may be related to cancer? It’s a fact that many people aren’t aware of, yet it’s important to understand the connection and take necessary steps in preventing it.

We’ve all heard about the harmful effects of cancer on the body – from chemotherapy and radiation to surgery and side effects. However, for many individuals, the aftermath of cancer treatment can also lead to lymphedema. Cancer treatment can often result in damage to the lymphatic system, leading to swelling and fluid buildup – the telltale signs of lymphedema. While it’s not always a direct correlation, it’s crucial for cancer patients and survivors to be aware of the potential risks.

Unfortunately, there’s still more research that needs to be conducted in order to fully understand the relationship between lymphedema and cancer. However, by educating ourselves on the topic, we can take preventative measures to ensure that proper precautions are taken before the onset of lymphedema. From maintaining a healthy diet to practicing a regular exercise routine, there are many ways we can help our lymphatic system to function at its peak potential. So, don’t wait until it’s too late – start taking care of your lymphatic system today, and combat the risk of lymphedema and other associated health issues.

Causes of Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a condition that occurs when the lymphatic system is damaged or disrupted, leading to lymphatic fluid buildup in the tissues. There are several causes of lymphedema, including:

  • Cancer treatment: The most common cause of lymphedema is cancer treatment, particularly surgery and radiation therapy. These treatments can damage or remove lymph nodes, leading to lymphedema.
  • Infection: Infections such as cellulitis can also damage the lymphatic system, leading to lymphedema.
  • Immobility: Lack of physical activity or immobility due to injury, illness, or disability can also lead to lymphedema.

Other potential causes of lymphedema include obesity, genetics, or congenital abnormalities.

Symptoms of Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a condition that may affect individuals who have undergone cancer-related treatments such as radiation or surgery. Below are some of the common symptoms of lymphedema:

  • Swelling in the arms, legs, hand, fingers, feet, or toes
  • A feeling of heaviness or tightness in the affected limb
  • Skin that feels stretched or tightened
  • Reduced flexibility or range of motion in the affected limb
  • Recurring infections or cellulitis

In some cases, a person may not notice any symptoms of lymphedema until the condition has progressed. It is essential to understand that lymphedema can affect different people in different ways. Some may experience mild symptoms, while others may have more severe symptoms. Moreover, the symptoms of lymphedema may appear soon after cancer treatments or months or years later. So, if you have undergone cancer treatment, and you notice any unusual symptoms, speak with your healthcare provider.

To diagnose lymphedema, your healthcare provider may perform a physical exam and may also use tests such as imaging tests to examine your lymphatic system. Early diagnosis is critical, as it can help manage lymphedema and prevent it from getting worse.

Next, let’s look at some of the risk factors associated with lymphedema.

Stages of Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a condition that occurs when lymphatic fluid builds up in the tissues, causing swelling, discomfort, and limited mobility. The severity of lymphedema can be classified into four stages, which helps doctors determine the appropriate treatment for patients.

The stages of lymphedema are:

  • Stage 0: In this stage, swelling is not yet visible, but some of the transport capacity of the lymphatic system has been lost.
  • Stage 1: In this stage, the affected limb or area may be swollen, but the swelling goes down with elevation and bandaging. This stage of lymphedema is also referred to as the reversible stage because with proper treatment the swelling can be reduced.
  • Stage 2: In this stage, the swelling of the affected area is more pronounced and no longer goes down with elevation and bandaging. Scarring may also occur, and the skin may feel hard to the touch. This stage of lymphedema is known as the irreversible stage because the damage is permanent and the swelling cannot be completely resolved.
  • Stage 3: This is the most advanced stage of lymphedema, where there is excessive swelling and hardening of the affected area. The skin may become tight, limiting mobility, and there may be increased risk of infections.

Treatments for Lymphedema

If left untreated, lymphedema can lead to a number of complications and discomforts. There are many treatments available for lymphedema that can help manage symptoms and reduce the severity of the condition. Some of the commonly used treatments include:

  • Compression therapy: This therapy involves wearing compression garments or wraps that help improve lymphatic fluid circulation and prevent fluid buildup.
  • Lymphatic drainage: This technique involves gentle massage of the affected area to promote lymphatic fluid circulation and reduce swelling.
  • Exercise: Regular exercise can also help improve lymphatic fluid circulation and reduce swelling. Patients are advised to consult their doctors before starting any form of exercise program.
  • Surgery: In some cases, surgery may be recommended to remove excess tissue or to reroute the lymphatic system.

Preventing Lymphedema

While there is no known cure for lymphedema, there are steps that can be taken to prevent it from occurring or worsening. Some of the preventive measures include:

  • Avoiding tight clothing or jewelry that can restrict lymphatic fluid circulation.
  • Protecting the skin from injury or infection by using sunscreen and insect repellent, keeping the skin moisturized, and avoiding cuts and scrapes.
  • Managing other medical conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, that can increase the risk of lymphedema.

By understanding the different stages of lymphedema and the available treatments, patients can work with their doctors to manage their symptoms, improve their quality of life, and prevent complications.

Diagnosis of Lymphedema

Diagnosing lymphedema can be challenging, as it shares symptoms with other conditions. However, there are specific tests and criteria used to diagnose lymphedema. These include:

  • Physical examination: A doctor or lymphedema therapist will check for swelling and other signs of lymphedema in the affected area.
  • Circumference measurements: Taking measurements of the affected area can help determine the amount of swelling and track changes in size.
  • Lymphoscintigraphy: A test that uses a small amount of radioactive dye injected into the affected area to show how the lymphatic system is working and identify any blockages.

In addition, there are diagnostic criteria used to identify lymphedema, including:

  • A difference of at least 2cm in circumference between the affected and unaffected areas
  • Swelling that persists for more than three months
  • Positive response to treatment with manual lymphatic drainage or compression bandaging

It is important to note that early detection and diagnosis of lymphedema is critical for effective treatment. If you notice any signs of swelling in the affected area, such as tightness or heaviness, speak to your doctor or lymphedema therapist immediately.

Listed below are some early signs of lymphedema:

Stage Characteristics
Stage 0 No visible swelling, but there may be a feeling of heaviness, tightness, or tingling in the affected area
Stage 1 Swelling that is easily reversible with elevation of the affected area
Stage 2 Swelling that is not easily reversible with elevation of the affected area and may be accompanied by changes in the skin, such as thickening or hardening
Stage 3 Swelling that is irreversible and may be accompanied by skin changes, such as darkening and ulcers

By recognizing these early signs and seeking early diagnosis and treatment, it is possible to manage lymphedema effectively and prevent it from becoming more severe.

Treatment for Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a chronic condition that causes swelling in the arms, legs, or other parts of the body. It can occur after treatment for cancer, as the removal of lymph nodes can disrupt the normal flow of lymphatic fluid. While there is no cure for lymphedema, there are treatments that can help manage the symptoms and improve quality of life.

  • Compression therapy: This involves wearing compression garments or bandages to help reduce swelling and improve lymphatic flow. The pressure from the compression helps push the fluid out of the affected area, reducing swelling and discomfort.
  • Manual lymphatic drainage: This is a type of massage therapy that helps stimulate lymphatic flow and move fluid out of the affected area. It should be performed by a trained therapist who is knowledgeable about lymphedema.
  • Exercise: Gentle exercise can help improve lymphatic flow and reduce swelling. It is important to talk to a healthcare provider before starting an exercise program for lymphedema.

In addition to these treatments, there are several lifestyle changes that can help manage lymphedema symptoms. These include:

– Keeping the affected limb elevated as much as possible
– Avoiding tight clothing that can constrict lymphatic flow
– Taking steps to prevent infection, as infections can exacerbate lymphedema
– Maintaining a healthy weight
– Avoiding extreme temperatures that can cause swelling

For those with more severe cases of lymphedema, there are surgical options that can be considered. These include:

– Lymph node transfer: This involves moving healthy lymph nodes from one part of the body to the affected area to improve lymphatic flow.
– Liposuction: This can be used to remove excess tissue and fluid from the affected area.
– Microsurgery: This involves connecting lymphatic vessels to allow for better flow of lymphatic fluid.

Overall, the goal of lymphedema treatment is to reduce swelling and manage symptoms to improve quality of life. It is important to work with a healthcare provider who is knowledgeable about lymphedema to determine the best course of treatment for each individual case.

Tips for Managing Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a condition that causes swelling in one or more areas of the body due to a build-up of lymph fluid. While lymphedema can occur as a result of cancer treatments such as radiation therapy or surgery, it is not directly related to cancer itself.

General Tips

  • Stay active: Regular exercise can help prevent lymphedema by improving your lymphatic system’s ability to drain fluid from your body.
  • Elevate the affected area: Keeping the affected limb elevated can reduce swelling and assist with fluid drainage.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight can increase the risk of developing lymphedema and make it harder to manage if it does occur.

Diet and Nutrition

Eating a healthy diet and staying hydrated can help manage lymphedema symptoms.

  • Avoid salty or processed foods: These types of foods can increase fluid retention and worsen lymphedema symptoms.
  • Drink plenty of water: Staying hydrated can help prevent swelling and improve lymphatic drainage.
  • Eat high-fiber foods: Foods high in fiber can help maintain a healthy weight and prevent constipation, which can worsen lymphedema symptoms.
  • Limited alcohol intake: Drinking too much alcohol can lead to dehydration and worsen lymphedema symptoms. It is best to limit alcohol intake.

Compression Garments

Compression garments are a common tool for managing lymphedema symptoms. These garments work by applying pressure to the affected area, which reduces swelling and encourages fluid drainage. Compression garments come in a variety of styles and sizes, so it is essential to work with a certified lymphedema therapist to find the right fit.

Types of compression garments: Benefits:
Sleeves or stockings Provides compression throughout the affected limb
Gloves or gauntlets Fits the hand and wrist area, which is often affected by lymphedema
Compression bras Fits the chest area, which is often affected by lymphedema after breast cancer surgery

Compression garments should be worn during the day and removed at night. It is important to clean and replace the garments regularly to maintain their effectiveness.

Lymphedema Prevention Measures

Lymphedema is a chronic condition that causes swelling in the arms and legs due to a malfunctioning lymphatic system. While it can occur for various reasons, one common cause is cancer treatment. Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between cancer and lymphedema, and explore some preventative measures that can minimize the risk of developing this condition.

Understanding the Relationship Between Cancer and Lymphedema

  • Cancer treatments such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can damage the lymph nodes and vessels, disrupting the flow of lymphatic fluid and causing swelling.
  • The risk of developing lymphedema increases with the number of lymph nodes removed or radiated, the amount of radiation received, and the presence of infection or other complications following cancer treatment.
  • While lymphedema can occur immediately following cancer treatment, it can also develop many years later, making ongoing monitoring and preventative measures crucial for long-term management.

Preventative Measures for Lymphedema

While it may not be possible to prevent lymphedema entirely, there are a few key precautions that can help minimize the risk:

  • Avoid cuts, burns, and other injuries to the affected limb, and protect it from sunburn and extreme temperatures.
  • Practice good hygiene, including frequent hand-washing, to reduce the risk of infection.
  • Avoid tight-fitting clothing and jewelry on the affected limb, as well as heavy lifting and repetitive motions that place additional strain on the area.

Exercise and Lymphedema Prevention

Regular exercise is an important tool for managing lymphedema, as it can help improve circulation and promote lymphatic drainage. While it may seem counterintuitive, it’s generally safe and encouraged for individuals with lymphedema to engage in mild to moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking, swimming, or yoga. However, it’s important to follow a few guidelines:

  • Avoid high-impact activities that place excessive stress on the affected limb, and gradually increase the intensity and duration of exercise as tolerated.
  • Consult a certified lymphatic therapist for guidance on safe exercises and techniques for lymphatic drainage.
  • Wear compression garments during exercise to promote lymphatic flow and prevent swelling.

Compression Therapy

Compression therapy is a common preventative measure for lymphedema, as it can help improve circulation, reduce swelling, and prevent the progression of the condition. This technique involves applying pressure to the affected limb with specially-designed compression garments, such as sleeves, gloves, or stockings. The pressure helps to promote lymphatic flow and prevent the buildup of fluid in the area. Depending on the severity of the condition, compression therapy may be recommended for daily wear or during certain activities, such as exercise or air travel.

Type of Compression Level of Pressure Interval of Application
Gradient compression Varies from high pressure at the ankle to low pressure at the thigh or hip Worn every day to prevent swelling or as directed by a physician
Manual lymph drainage Low pressure massage techniques applied by a specialist Usually done in clinic setting several times per week
Intermittent pneumatic compression Pressure generated by inflatable sleeves worn around the affected limb, often used in combination with other therapies Varies depending on the severity of the condition, prescribed by a physician or therapist

By following a combination of preventative measures such as exercise, proper hygiene and clothing, and compression therapy, individuals can take an active role in managing lymphedema and minimizing its impact on their overall quality of life.

Is Lymphedema related to Cancer? FAQs

Q1. What is Lymphedema?

Ans. Lymphedema is a chronic disorder that results in swelling due to the accumulation of lymphatic fluid in tissues. It usually affects the arms or legs, but it can also occur in other parts of the body.

Q2. Can Cancer cause Lymphedema?

Ans. Yes, cancer and the related treatments like radiation therapy and surgery can damage the lymphatic vessels, leading to lymphedema.

Q3. What types of Cancer can lead to Lymphedema?

Ans. Cancers that involve lymphatic vessels or lymph nodes like breast cancer, gynecologic cancers, melanoma, and prostate cancer can lead to lymphedema.

Q4. How common is Lymphedema in Cancer patients?

Ans. Around 20% of breast cancer survivors develop lymphedema, and it’s also common in other types of cancer survivors.

Q5. Is Lymphedema curable?

Ans. Although there is no cure for lymphedema, it can be managed with early diagnosis, proper treatment, and lifestyle changes.

Q6. What are the treatment options for Lymphedema?

Ans. The most common treatment options for Lymphedema include lymphatic massage, compression garments, exercises, and surgery in severe cases.

Q7. Can Lymphedema put the cancer patient at risk of recurrence?

Ans. Lymphedema itself doesn’t put the cancer patient at risk of recurrence, but it can mask some symptoms, making it challenging to detect cancer in the affected area.


Lymphedema is a common condition that can develop after cancer treatment. Although it’s not curable, it’s manageable with proper treatment and lifestyle changes. It’s essential to know the risk factors and symptoms of lymphedema to get early diagnosis and treatment. So, if you or someone you know has cancer, it’s essential to keep an eye on any swelling or discomfort in the affected area. Thanks for reading, and please visit again later for more health-related topics.