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Lymphoedema fact sheet

Produced by Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA)

Based on BCNA’s Lymphoedema fact sheet

What is lymphoedema?

diagram of breast showing the location of the lymph nodes under the left breast and extends to under the arm and towards the shouldersLymph is a fluid that goes around the body and removes particles that may cause damage.

The lymph then goes through lymph nodes that remove the particles safely.

If the lymph nodes are damaged or removed, lymph fluid can build up in the tissues. This causes a swelling known as ‘lymphoedema’.

Women with breast cancer might have lymphoedema

diagram of breasts and lymph nodes with a red circle symbolising lymphoedema

If cancer cells spread beyond your breast they often spread to the lymph nodes in the armpits.

If cancer cells spread to these lymph nodes they must be removed.

Not everyone gets lymphoedema. You might get lymphoedema if

  • you have had lymph nodes removed
  • you have had radiotherapy to the armpit.

How you know if you have lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema can happen after surgery, even many years later.

Be aware of feelings in your arms, breast area, shoulders, chest or hands. You may feel

  • Swollen or tight (you may notice that your rings, sleeves or wristbands feel tight)
  • Aches or pains

If you feel any of these see your doctor as soon as possible.

There are things you can do to reduce your risk of lymphoedema

yes insect reppellent bottle 

If you might get bitten by insects, use an insect repellent. If you are bitten, use a product so that your skin does not itch.

yes  woman washing face in bathroom mirror with towel on head

Take good care of your skin.

Try to

  • protect it from the sun
  • protect it from cuts and scratches
  • take care of injuries straight away
  • use sorbolene.
yes  electric razor on top of image of woman holding up her arm motioning to her underarm 

If you shave your armpit use an electric razor.

yes pair of green gardening gloves

Use gloves when you wash the dishes or work in the garden.

yes woman happily running, exercising

Keep active to increase lymph flow.

 

yes   doctor talking to female patient. Both are seated face-to-face and the female is smiling.  

If a cut or scratch becomes red or warm see your doctor as soon as possible.

There are things that can increase your risk of lymphoedema 

no  swollen right arm representing lymphoedema 

Try not to

  • overuse the arm that had surgery
  • let your arm get too hot
  • go to spa baths or have a hot bath.
no woman fastening her bra strap 

Try not to wear

  • tight clothes and bra straps
  • tight watches and bracelets.

Take care when you travel

When you travel by plane, bus, car or train, parts of your body may become swollen. When you travel, try not to

image of three of the same woman running, symbolising rushing. The image has a red cross through it.

rush around

woman sitting with a suitcase next to her and clock is displaying different times, symbolising she has been sitting for a long time. This image has a red cross through it.

sit still for a long time

woman trying to wheel a heavy suitcase. Image has a red cross through it.

carry heavy bags.

 Tips when you travel

woman happily wheeling a suitcase with the word "surgery" and an arrow to her body. The image has a tick on it.

Carry your bags on the side you have not had surgery. Use bags with wheels.

Exercise your arm. Go for a walk every 2 hours.

woman sitting with a suitcase next to her and clock is displaying different times, symbolising she has been sitting for a long time. This image has a red cross through it.

sit still for a long time

How you can manage lymphoedema 

There is no cure for lymphoedema. To make it better, you can try

  • good skin care
  • massage
  • gentle exercise
  • compression sleeves.

Compression sleeves need to be fitted well. Your doctor will tell you where to get one.

Where to find more information

Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA)

BCNA logo



For breast cancer information and support, call 1800 500 258 or visit BCNA's website.

 

Talk to your doctor

 

Australasian Lymphology Association

Australasian Lymphology Association logo

For lymphoedema help, support and information in your area call (03) 9586 6030 or visit the website.

Cancer Australia

Cancer Australia logo

For booklets on lymphoedema call  
1800 624 973 or visit Cancer Australia's website.