Coping with Lymphedema

What is Lymphedema and Why Does It Occur?

Lymphedema is the term for swelling of the extremity after the lymph nodes that drain the extremity have been removed. Naturally, the body cannot reabsorb fluid as easily from that extremity if it missing the system that was in place to do so.[1] The other issue with this is that the body cannot fight infection or repair injuries to the extremity as well without this system in place. Thus, any cut, needlestick, scrape or any kind of injury is much more likely to become infected.

Lymphedema can be mild, moderate or severe. It can be localized to the underarm area where the lymph nodes were removed or it can involve the entire arm, including the hand. The presence or absence, as well as the extent of lymphedema can vary greatly between individuals.

Are You at Risk for Lymphedema?

Women who are at risk for developing lymphedema if they have any of the following:[2]

  • Axillary Lymph Node Dissection
  • Radiation to axillary region
  • Obesity
  • History of smoking
  • Diabetes

How to Avoid Lymphedema

There are ways to lower your risk of lymphedema after breast cancer surgery. The best way is to protect your skin at all times.[3]

  • Use lotions or skin moisturizer
  • Use sunscreen and bugspray if indicated, when going outside
  • Use gloves when doing chores, washing dishes or gardening
  • Use electric razors for shaving your armpits
  • Elevate your arm while resting
  • Do not cut your cuticles, but use a cuticle pusher during manicures
  • Avoid hot tubs, heating pads and heavy lifting with that extremity

Controlling Lymphedema

One way to control lymphedema is to elevate your arm to the level or above your heart to assist the drainage of lymphatic fluid to your heart. Compression sleeves are also helpful as they are made of elastic and fit tightly to your arm to keep it from swelling. Diuretics may also help with lymphedema as it can rid your body of excessive fluid. treatment. By far, however, the best treatment for lymphedema is prevention. If you start to recognize any swelling, redness, warmth or pain in your arm after your surgery, see your doctor as soon as possible.


1  General Information about Lymphedema. (n.d.). Retrieved from National Cancer Institute:

2  Managing Lymphedema. (n.d.). Retrieved from National Cancer Institute:

3  Weiss, M. W. (1998, 2005). Living Beyond Breast Cancer. New York City: Three Rivers Press.

This article was originally published on July 27,2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/2/2015.