Understanding Lymphedema: For Cancers Other Than Breast Cancer

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What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema (limf-uh-dee-muh) is a build-up of lymph (limf) fluid in the fatty tissues just under the skin. This build-up causes swelling (or edema [uh-dee-muh]), most often in the arms or legs. Lymphedema can also affect the face, neck, abdomen (belly), and genitals – depending on the part of the body that was treated. There are 2 types of lymphedema:

  • Primary lymphedema occurs in people born with genes that put them at an increased risk of developing lymphedema. This lymphedema is caused by lymph nodes or vessels that are missing or not working the way they should. This type of lymphedema is rare.
  • Secondary lymphedema is a result of cancer, cancer treatments, tumors, diseases, or anything that changes or damages the normal, healthy lymph system.

The rest of the information here is about secondary lymphedema – what we know about it, the signs you can look for, steps you can take to lower your risk of getting it, and things you can do to try to keep it from getting worse.

Talk to someone on your health care team about your lymphedema risk and what you can do to lower it. Once chronic lymphedema has started, it cannot be cured. But early and careful management can reduce symptoms and help keep it from getting worse.

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