Swelling of the arm, leg or other body part after cancer treatment may be caused by ‘secondary lymphoedema’ and should be treated early. A new, free information booklet on lymphoedema is now available from the National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre (NBOCC).

What is secondary lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema of the armLymphoedema is swelling caused by the buildup of lymph fluid (fluid from the body’s tissues). Lymph fluid drains into fine channels (lymph vessels) which carry it the lymph nodes and then into the blood stream. Lymph nodes are found especially in the armpits, groin, abdomen, chest and neck.

In some cancer treatments, the lymph nodes are removed by surgery or are damaged by radiotherapy. This can lead to swelling which can occur months or years after surgery.

An example of secondary lymphoedema is the swelling of the arm which sometimes occurs when the lymph nodes in the armpit are removed in the treatment of breast cancer (pictured).

What to look out for

According to the NBOCC, early signs of lymphoedema include:

  • A feeling of heaviness, tightness or fullness in the limb or body part
  • Swelling
  • Ache, pain or tension

Lymphoedema is not curable, but early treatment can help control it. Treatments include tightly fitting elastic garments, massage, special exercises and elevation.

People with lymphoedema need to take special care of their skin, keep active and maintain a healthy weight. Infections should be treated urgently.

Speak to your doctor if you think you may have early signs of secondary lymphoedema.

To read or order a copy of the NBOCC booklet, click here.


  • Please note this information was correct at time of publication.
  • For up to date information, speak to your doctor.
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