What is Lymphoedema?

2nd Jun 2021

Lymphoedema is characterised by swelling of certain parts of the body, caused by problems with the lymphatic system . Any part of the body can be affected by lymphoedema, but it tends to target the arms and legs. 

Around 300,000 Australians will experience lymphoedema at any given time.

Normally, fluid and proteins leak into the body tissues regularly from the blood. This tissue fluid bathes the cells, supplies their nutritional needs and receives back the products of their metabolism. The lymphatic system is a network of tubes throughout the body that drains this fluid (called lymph) from tissues and empties it back into the bloodstream. When this system is not working properly, lymphoedema can occur.

Women who have undergone surgery and radiotherapy for treatment of breast cancer are particularly susceptible to lymphoedema of the arm and, sometimes, the adjacent chest wall on the affected side. Men and women who have had surgery and radiotherapy for the treatment of cancer of the prostate, bowel or reproductive systems are also prone to lymphoedema of the legs or groin areas.

Untreated lymphoedema can lead to decreased function
and mobility in the affected
area, skin breakdown, infection and other complications

Lymphoedema after treatment for breast cancer

Swelling of the arm, the remaining breast tissue or the chest can follow breast cancer surgery if the nearby lymph nodes in the armpit are removed. Radiotherapy can also cause swelling. Although the incidence varies – depending on the number of lymph nodes removed, whether radiotherapy was given and a range of other factors – around 10 per cent of women will experience lymphoedema to some degree with radiotherapy alone, while up to one-third of women who undergo both radiotherapy and surgery (and have other risk factors) will be affected . Lymphoedema can occur at any stage after the intervention, even 20 years later.

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Ref:National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre. Review of research evidence on secondary lymphoedema: Incidence, prevention, risk factors and treatment, NBOCC, Surry Hills, NSW, 2008. Document can be downloaded from