Lymphedema occurs when lymphatic fluid does not drain as it should. Normally, lymph nodes filter fluid as it flows through them — trapping bacteria, viruses, and other foreign substances that are then destroyed by special white blood cells called lymphocytes.

Without normal lymphatic drainage, fluid can build up in the affected arm or leg or other body part, resulting in lymphedema. Certain medicines, radiation therapy, and injury to the lymph nodes and vessels can also cause lymphedema.

There are two forms of lymphedema:

  1. Primary lymphedema can occur without an outside cause and is much less common than secondary lymphedema.
  2. Secondary lymphedema is caused by removal of the lymph nodes or other damage to the lymphatic system. Lymphedema is a common side effect of cancer surgery in which lymph nodes are removed to prevent the spread of cancer.

Cancer treatment and lymphedema

At University of Missouri Health Care’s Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, our physicians and staff want you to know what to expect after treatment so you can enjoy life without cancer. If you have had lymph nodes removed or have had radiation therapy as part of your cancer treatment, talk with your physician or nurse about ways you can observe for signs and symptoms and treat your lymphedema.

Breast cancer patients often notice lymphedema in their chest close to their breasts and in the arm on the side where the cancer was treated. Lymphedema in the legs is also common after treatment for uterine, ovarian and vulvar cancers as well as prostate cancer. It can also be seen after melanoma or lymphoma treatment.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of lymphedema include feeling as though your clothes, rings, wristwatches, or bracelets are too tight. It can also feel like your arms or legs are too full or swollen and leave you with less flexibility in your wrists, hands, arms, legs, feet and ankles.

How is it treated?

Treatment for lymphedema depends on its cause and symptoms. Our therapists will work with you to find the best solution to help you manage lymphedema. Treatment might include:

  • Wearing compression garments such as special stockings or sleeves
  • Maintaining good skin care
  • Attending to your diet to maintain your health and optimal weight
  • Helping to drain the excess fluid through a specialized massage
  • Beginning an exercise routine that helps promote lymphatic circulation

If you think you might be experiencing lymphedema, call your physician immediately. If left untreated, lymphedema can become a serious condition.

The cancer rehabilitation and therapy team at MU Health Care work with our patients to help them during and after cancer treatment. This unique team understands how cancer treatment like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation affect the body and specifically work with our patients with lymphedema to provide personalized care.

Additional information about lymphedema can be found online at the American Lymphedema Framework Project.