Understanding Lymphedema: For Cancers Other Than Breast Cancer

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What causes lymphedema?

Any change in the structure of the lymph system puts a person at risk for lymphedema.

Surgery: During surgery for cancer the doctor may take out lymph nodes near the tumor to see if the cancer has spread. Lymph vessels may also be removed because they are wrapped around the lymph nodes. Taking out lymph nodes and vessels makes it harder for the fluid in the arms, legs, or other body parts to flow to the chest where it can get back into the bloodstream. If the remaining lymph vessels cannot remove enough of the fluid in the area, the excess fluid builds up and causes swelling.

Radiation: Radiation treatment can affect the flow of lymph fluid by scarring the lymph nodes and vessels; this increases the risk for lymphedema, too.

Cancer: Sometimes, a tumor itself can block part of the lymph system and cause lymphedema.

Infection: Infections that restrict lymph flow can cause lymphedema.

Last Medical Review: 04/05/2013
Last Revised: 04/05/2013