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Lymphedema that is related to cancer is most commonly caused by lymph node removal during surgery for cancer, radiation to the lymph node area, and/or by the tumor itself which might block part of the lymph system. Increased white blood cells due to leukemia or an infection can also limit lymph flow and cause lymphedema.
Lymphedema can start soon after treatment for cancer. This can be called acute, temporary, or short-term lymphedema. It usually starts within days, weeks, or a few months (up to a year) after treatment, is usually mild, and goes away on its own or with some mild treatments.
Even though this type of lymphedema usually goes away on its own over time, you should tell your doctor about it right away. The swollen area may look red and feel hot, which could be a sign of a blood clot, infection, or other problem that needs to be checked and treated.
If there are no other problems causing the swelling, short-term lymphedema might be treated by raising the arm or leg, or doing light exercises.
This form of lymphedema develops over time. It may show up a year or more 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 also 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. The key is to know what to look for, and then to get help right away when you first notice signs and symptoms. Lymphedema can be treated, and it's more likely to respond to treatment if it’s diagnosed and treated early.
When you have lymphedema, treatments can help reduce the swelling, keep it from getting worse, and decrease the risk of infection. Treatment is prescribed by your doctor, and you should talk to and be monitored by a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT).
Some common types of treatment for lymphedema include:
Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD): This is a type of massage done by a specialist to move the extra fluid to other parts of the body and decrease the lymphedema.
Complete decongestive therapy (CDT): This treatment, also done by a specialist, involves skin care, MLD, special compression bandaging, exercises, and elevating the affected part of the body. Daily CDT is used to lower fluid volume as much as possible and can take a few weeks.
Intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC): This treatment is another form of compression that uses a device that fills with air and then deflates off and on (like a blood pressure cuff) to move the extra fluid out of the affected area.
Compression garment: A certified lymphedema specialist can measure you for a compression garment that fits just right. When the lymphedema is controlled as much as possible, for example after regular MLD or daily CDT, a compression garment is then used to help keep it under control.
Surgery: If the lymphedema can’t be controlled with the measures above, surgical procedures such as lymphatic bypass, lymph node transfer, or liposuction might be considered. These types of surgeries have their own possible complications, so they should be done at centers that are experienced in doing them for people with cancer.
Although most insurance companies will pay for lymphedema treatment, some don’t cover the cost of compression garments and dressings. Check with your health insurance company to see what's covered.
Call your doctor, nurse, physical therapist, or lymphedema therapist if you notice any of the signs or symptoms of lymphedema listed or any of these changes:
Lymphology Association of North America (LANA)
National Lymphedema Network (NLN)
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Last Revised: May 25, 2021