Preventing Lymphedema

James Metz, MD
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: November 1, 2001

Lymphatic fluid is a clear, colorless fluid which passes through the capillary walls into the tissues of your body. Lymph channels carry the lymphatic fluid first to lymph nodes which filter out bacteria and other debris, and then back to the circulating blood. Lymph fluid is moved through the channels in the arms and legs by contraction of the muscles and valves which prevent it from flowing backward. When surgery is performed on the lymph nodes in the armpit such as for breast cancer, the lymph flow may be slowed. Surgery on the lymph glands in the abdomen may slow the drainage of fluid from the legs. This might result in swelling of the arms or legs (Lymphedema) depending on the area treated.

If you are a patient who has had combined surgery and radiation therapy to the lymph node region, you may be at an increased risk of developing lymphedema. You should notify your physician immediately if you develop swelling in the arm or leg. You may have an infection which requires prompt treatment. The most important way to combat lymphedema is to prevent its occurrence. Here are some simple recommendations:
  • Keep the affected extremity clean with moisturizing soaps such as Dove©
  • Keep the skin moisturized with lotions
  • Use an electric razor instead of a blade on the affected extremity/armpit if you are shaving this region
  • Protect the skin from the sun with sun-screen, at least SPF-15
  • Use insect repellents to prevent bug bites
  • Keep the extremity in an elevated position when you are resting; this lets gravity work to move the lymph fluid
  • Consider wearing a compression stocking on the extremity when flying in an airplane
  • Avoid hot showers, saunas, or steam rooms
  • Avoid excess alcohol and smoking
  • Do not have any blood pressure measurements, injections, blood draws, or vaccinations on the affected extremity
  • Maintain your ideal body weight
For the Arm:
  • Wear rubber gloves when washing dishes
  • Wear protective gloves when doing work outside
  • Avoid carrying heavy objects with the affected arm
  • Carry heavy shoulder bags on the unaffected side
  • Do not get a manicure on the affected side
  • Do not wear a watch or jewelry on the affected side
For the Leg:
  • Wear shoes or slippers around the house....Do not go barefoot
  • Consider having a podiatrist cut your toe nails
  • Get good, comfortable shoes
  • Wear work boots when doing chores outside

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