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Lymphedema: Arm Or Leg Swelling

Lymphedema is a swelling of a part of the body that is caused by the buildup of lymph fluids. It often happens in the arm, leg, face or neck. It can be caused by cancer or its treatment. There are many different types of lymphedema. Some types happen right after surgery, are mild, and don't last long. Other types can occur months or years after cancer treatment and can be quite painful. These types can also develop after an insect bite, minor injury, or burn.

People who are at risk for lymphedema are those who have had:

  • Breast cancer — if you had radiation therapy or had your underarm lymph nodes removed, or had radiation in the underarm area after your lymph nodes were removed
  • Melanoma of the arms or legs – if you had lymph nodes removed and/or had radiation therapy.
  • Prostate cancer – if you had surgery or radiation therapy to the whole pelvis.
  • Cancer of the female or male reproductive organs – if you had surgery to remove lymph nodes or had radiation therapy.
  • Other cancers that have spread to the lower abdominal area. The pressure from the growing tumor can make it hard for your body to drain fluid.
Getting Help With Lymphedema From Your Doctor Or Nurse

Your doctor or nurse may be able to help you find ways to prevent and relieve lymphedema. Ask about:

  • Skin care – It is important to keep your skin clean. You should also keep it moist with lotion.
  • Exercise – Ask about exercises to help the body drain the lymph fluid, and what types of exercise you should not do.
  • Ways to treat lymphedema – Your doctor may suggest:
    • Keeping the arm or leg raised above your chest for periods of time
    • Special massage that can help by moving the lymph fluid from where it has settled.
    • Wearing special elastic sleeves and clothing that can help lymph fluid drain
    • Avoiding procedures done in the area with lymphedema, such as shots or blood tests
    • Losing weight
    • Finding sources of emotional support to help you cope
Tips: Preventing Or Relieving Lymphedema

Other cancer survivors have found these tips helpful:
  • Watch for signs of swelling or infection (redness, pain, heat, fever). Tell your doctor or nurse if your arm or leg is painful or swollen.
  • Keep your arm or leg free of cuts, insect bites, or sunburn. Try not to have shots or blood tests done in that area.
  • Eat a well-balanced, protein-rich, low-salt diet.
  • Keep regular follow-up appointments with your doctor.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing on your arm or leg.
  • Protect the area. Try not to use that arm or leg to figure out how hot or cold something is — such as bathwater or cooked food. You may be less able to feel hot and cold now.

Aetna Members: If you would like more information about breast cancer and breast cancer prevention, please call (888) 322 8742.

Miembros de Aetna: Si desean mayor información sobre el cáncer de seno y sobre su prevención por favor llame al (888) 322 8742.

Last updated April 2, 2010