Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home

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Swelling (edema) is a build-up of water in the tissues. Common causes include salt and water retention (due to medicines or heart, liver, or kidney failure), poor nutrition, pelvic tumors, or a blockage in the veins or lymph system. Fluid can also build up in the abdomen (belly). This is known as ascites (as-sigh-tees). It makes the belly look swollen.

What to look for

  • Feet and lower legs get larger (swell) when you sit in a chair, stand, or walk
  • Rings feel too tight for fingers
  • Hands feel tight when making a fist
  • Large, puffy, or blown-up abdomen (belly)
  • Trouble breathing, especially when lying down (See the section called “Shortness of breath.”)
  • Heart racing or palpitations (or an awareness that the heartbeat is fast or irregular)

What the patient can do

  • Limit your use of salt on food. Avoid using salt in cooking, and don’t eat foods that are very high in sodium (check food labels).
  • Talk with the doctor about how to reduce your salt intake.
  • Eat as well as you can. (See the section called “Appetite, poor.”)
  • Take medicines as prescribed by the doctor.
  • If your feet are swollen, rest in bed with them up on 2 pillows.
  • When sitting up in a chair, keep your feet raised by sitting in a recliner or by placing your feet on a footstool with pillows.

What caregivers can do

  • Watch for any new symptoms, especially shortness of breath or swelling in the face.
  • Encourage the patient to keep the swollen body part propped up as high as is comfortable when sitting or lying down.
  • Don’t add salt, soy sauce, or monosodium glutamate during cooking.
  • Weigh the patient every day or 2 on the same scale, at the same time of day. Keep a list of weights and dates.

Call the doctor if the patient:

  • Can’t eat for a day or more
  • Hasn’t urinated, or has urinated very little, for a day or more
  • Has only one arm or leg that swells up
  • Can press a finger into a swollen area and the fingertip mark remains
  • Has swelling that spreads up legs or arms
  • Develops a puffy or blown-up belly
  • Feels that the swollen area is getting red or hot
  • Has shortness of breath or a racing heart
  • Has a swollen face and neck, especially in the mornings
  • Gains 5 or more pounds in a week or less

Last Medical Review: 11/05/2013
Last Revised: 11/05/2013