Understanding Lymphedema -- For Cancers Other Than Breast Cancer

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When does lymphedema develop?

Just after surgery: short-term lymphedema

Lymphedema can start right after surgery. This is called temporary lymphedema. It’s usually mild and goes away in 1 to 2 weeks. It can also happen later, about 6 to 8 weeks after surgery or radiation. Again, this type of lymphedema usually goes away in a few weeks, but if it happens you should tell your doctor about it right away. The affected area may look red and feel hot, which could also be a sign of blood clot, infection, or other problem. If nothing else is going on, it might be treated by raising the arm or leg and taking medicines to reduce inflammation. Studies of arm swelling after breast surgery suggest that this early swelling could mean a higher risk of lymphedema later. It’s unclear at this time whether this might also apply to other parts of the body.

Months or years after cancer treatment: chronic lymphedema

This form of lymphedema develops slowly over time. It may show up many months or even years after cancer treatment. The swelling can range from mild to severe. The lymph fluid that collects in the skin and underlying tissues can be very uncomfortable. It can keep nutrients from reaching the cells, interfere with wound healing, and lead to infections. Lymphedema can be a long-term problem, but there are ways to manage it.

We still have a lot to learn about lymphedema, but there are things you can do to take care of yourself, help lower your risk of getting lymphedema, and recognize it early so you can start treatment right away.

When to get help

Call your doctor, nurse, physical therapist, or lymphedema therapist if you notice any of the signs of lymphedema listed in the “Signs of lymphedema” section or any of these changes:

  • If any part of your body feels hot, looks red, has red blotches or streaks, gets tender (sore when touched), or swells suddenly. These could be a sign of infection or a blood clot, and you might need treatment right away.
  • If you have a temperature of 100.5°F or higher (taken by mouth) that’s not related to a cold or flu
  • If you have any new pain in the affected area with no known cause

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