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Living With Lymphoedema

Living With Lymphoedema

Lymphoedema (which is also spelled lymphedema) is a common side effect of breast cancer treatment that many breast cancer survivors live with.


What is Lymphoedema? How does it happen?

Our body’s lymphatic drainage system protects us from infection and disease by carrying fluid through our body. Our lymph glands, or nodes, are the filters of this system. When the lymph nodes are removed during surgery for breast cancer – usually from our armpit or chest, or damaged by radiotherapy, the way fluid moves through the lymphatic system changes.

The change in our lymph nodes can cause a build-up of fluid in the arm and chest, and swelling. This build-up of fluid is called lymphoedema.


Why Should You Care About Lymphedema?

Be Uplifted Inc’s own Ambassador, Sista With Style, Katrina, has been very open about her own battle with lymphedema.

Very recent studies show that this painful condition affects up to 41% of breast cancer patients.

Research agrees that those with higher risk for breast cancer-associated lymphedema include breast cancer patients who had:

  • dissection/disruption of axillary lymph nodes
  • the number of positive axillary lymph nodes
  • radiation therapy
  • developed seroma
  • If a person underwent chemotherapy infusion in the affected limb
  • local infection
  • advanced disease
  • a breast cancer patient’s BMI, and whether they are obese


The swelling caused by lymphoedema may not occur right away.

Lymphedema cannot be cured, only managed to reduce the swelling and discomfort caused.

Therefore, for those breast cancer survivors whose treatment included removal or damage of the lymph nodes, it is important to avoid adding strain to the lymphatic system.

Do you know the symptoms of lymphoma?

Lymphoedema usually develops gradually and can occur at any time. In fact, studies show that these risk factors for the development of breast cancer-related lymphedema have been shown to increase over time, especially in the first year after surgery.

The early symptoms of lymphoedema may come and go, depending on things like how active you are and how hot it is.

While post-surgical swelling is not a symptom of lymphedema.

These are the usual symptoms any breast cancer patient should look for:

  • Swelling in any part of the arm, breast/chest or armpit region, hand and fingers.
  • Feelings of heaviness, pain, aching, tightness or ‘bursting’ in the arm, breast or hand
  • Aching, pain, tension in the arm, shoulder, hand, chest or breast area.
  • Skin changes such as the skin feeling different or the skin being drier and more sensitive to irritation
  • Difficulty putting on clothing, with the sleeves feeling tight.


Avoiding Lympodema

While guidelines suggest using the arm as normally as possible, they do suggest that for an arm at risk to lymphoma there are many things a breast cancer survivor can do to protect themselves from lymphoma occurring.


These are some of the best tips to avoid lymphodema


Take care of your skin 

  • Keep the skin of your arm and hand healthy and unbroken.
  • Protect your hands with gloves while washing dishes or gardening.
  • Use a moisturising cream such as sorbolene to keep your skin moist.
  • If you shave your armpit, switch to an electric razor instead of a wet razor to avoid knicks to the skin.
  • Avoid using the arm in a way that puts an extra load on your lymphatic system.


Keep Active

Gentle, regular exercise greatly assists in the treatment of lymphoedema. Muscle movement increases lymph flow and reduces the risk of fluid accumulating.


Out and about

  • Protect your skin from the sun with clothing and sunscreen
  • Avoid saunas and spas
  • Use insect repellent


Medical care

  • Where possible, avoid using the arm on the side of your surgery for blood pressure measurements, injections, blood samples or intravenous drips.
  • Treat any cuts, bits or breaks to the skin with antiseptic.
  • If a cut, bite or break to the skin becomes red or inflamed, or if your arm swells quickly or becomes red and warm, see your doctor as soon as possible to rule out infection.

Want more detailed information about Lymphoedema and breast cancer?

These are fact sheets for breast cancer patients about Lymphoedema provide detailed information.


Westmead Breast Cancer Institute Factsheet

This 12-page brochure includes helpful diagrams and detailed advice for treating lymphedema, plus describes with pictures helpful ways to look after your arm and skin.


Breast Cancer Network Australia Factsheet

A factsheet with especially good advice on managing your lymphoedema risk during travel and subsidies for compression garments.


Cancer Australia’s Guide to Lymphoedema

This Guide covers Lymphoedema caused by all kinds of cancers and provides tips for managing your lymphoedema plus a checklist of questions to ask your doctor.