Swelling

Swelling (edema) is a build-up of water in the tissues. This can be caused by retaining salt and water due to medicines or heart, liver, or kidney failure. It can sometimes be due to poor nutrition, pelvic tumors, or a blockage in the veins or lymph system. Fluid can also build up in the belly. It can make the belly hard and swollen.

What to look for

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

What the patient can do

  • Limit your salt intake. Avoid using salt in cooking, and don’t eat foods that are very high in sodium (check food labels). Talk with your cancer team about this.
  • Eat as well as you can (see Poor Appetite).
  • Take medicines as prescribed.
  • 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.
  • Learn to read food labels and talk with the cancer team about how to keep sodium intake down.
  • Don’t add salt, soy sauce, or monosodium glutamate when cooking or preparing food.
  • Weigh the patient every 1 to 2 days on the same scale, at the same time of day. Keep a list of weights and dates.

Call the cancer team if the patient:

  • Can’t eat for a day or more
  • Hasn’t urinated (peed), or has passed very little urine for a day or more
  • Has only one arm or leg that swells up
  • Can press a finger into a swollen area and the dent remains after the finger is removed
  • Has swelling that spreads up legs or arms
  • Develops a hard, puffy, or blown-up belly
  • Notices that a 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

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: June 8, 2015 Last Revised: June 8, 2015

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