Supporting women whose lives have been touched by breast cancer


by pkl

This is a serious condition which despite affecting over  100,000 sufferers in the UK & Ireland alone, many people know nothing about.  It is a little advertised side effect of breast cancer that is under-researched and very much under-treated. It is a risk with other cancer surgeries too.  Getting the condition recognised and then treated can be a nightmare and we hope that this section will help you to do so.

Lymph is a natural body fluid found in the tissues and oedema means swelling caused by fluid.  Lymphoedema is a chronic disorder which occurs when  lymph fluid fails to circulate properly because the normal drainage channels have become blocked or damaged.  The symptoms can include pain, numbness, loss of mobility, loss of skin elasticity, hardening of the skin, increased skin infections, ulceration of the skin and swelling of the affected body part, sometimes by as much as 2,3 or 4 times the normal size.  It can affect any part of the body but, for breast cancer patients, most often the arms.  Once lymphoedema takes place, it never goes away and, if left untreated, can cause irreversible and progressive damage.  However, with proper education and care, lymphoedema can be avoided, or once it has developed it can be kept under control with treatment.

Women with breast cancer can get arm, breast or trunk lymphoedema as a result of trauma from surgery, removal of some or all of the lymph nodes to the upper chest and arms, or radiation therapy.  It can be unpredictable – some women who have only one lymph node removed may develop the condition while other women who have many removed may never get lymphoedema.  Plus the condition may not occur until months or years following the initial damage to the lymph system.  This is why close attention must be paid to any signs of symptoms or swelling and medical advice sought immediately.

  • Mimimise over-production of lymph fluid – avoid strenuous exercise, avoid direct sun exposure, avoid excessive heat ie. Saunas, steam rooms
  • Encourage flow of lymph fluid – light, stroking massage and shoulder exercises, avoid constriction around arm, avoid blood pressure taken on affected arm, no tight clothing or jewellery, no heavy luggage, avoid extreme cold (ie ice-pack)
  • Avoid an infection – care when shaving armpit, care when cutting fingernails, avoid blood tests or needles in affected arm, use gloves for housework or gardening, treat any cuts with antiseptic immediately, maintain good skin condition, avoid insect bites
  • Improve overall health – maintain a healthy diet and weight, take moderate exercise


Once lymphoedema has been diagnosed by a specialist Lymphoedema Practitioner (see Links) there are various treatments available.  Often, all that will be required is for the sufferer to wear a compression sleeve – a tightly knit one-piece elasticated cotton garment – in order to reduce swelling and maintain the circulation of lymph fluid.  Sometimes a form of massage called Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) is used by certified practitioners.  Following this MLD therapy, the affected limb can be wrapped in short-stretch compression bandages which usually stay on for 24 hours. This process is repeated for each treatment until the desired reduction in swelling is achieved.  It is important to maintain good skin cleanliness and moisturisation at all times.

Please read the following pages and investigate the provided links to discover more. 

Cellulitis - a serious complication of lymphoedema

cv's experience of living with mild lymphoedema

fr's experience of living with mild lympoedema

ply's experience of living with lympoedema

see's experience of living with lympoedema

rb's experience of cellulitis

truncal lymphoedema

Top tips for coping with lymphoedema