Lymphedema Self Care Tip Sheet

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Linda McGrath Boyle PT, DPT CLT-LANA
The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: October 17, 2012

There are some things that you can do to help yourself. Lymphedema is swelling that sometimes occurs after cancer treatment. The swelling may occur in the chest wall, abdomen, arm, leg, foot or hand on the side or in the area that lymph nodes were removed. Surgery and radiation treatment increase your risk for lymphedema.

Monitoring for Infection

Infection is a serious concern for people with lymphedema. Signs that you may have an infection include:

  • Sudden worsening in swelling
  • Increased pain
  • Redness
  • Affected limb feels warm or hot
  • Fever

If you develop any signs of infection, contact your physician or go to the nearest emergency room within 12 hours of these symptoms. Infection is a very serious concern. Do not wait to see if it improves!

What Can I Do to Prevent Problems?

Take Good Care of Your Skin

  • Keep your skin clean and moisturized with a lanolin-based lotion. (For example: Eucerin)
  • Wear protective gloves when you wash dishes or work in the garden.
  • Wear protective gloves when you use chemicals for cleaning.
  • Wear long oven mitts while handling hot pots and pans, especially while using the oven.
  • If you need to remove hair under your arm, avoid cutting, or irritating your skin.
  • Have injections or blood drawn from your other arm.
  • Manicures or cutting your cuticles can cause an opening in your skin, and lead to an infection in the arm on the side of your surgery. Manicure tools from nail salons can introduce bacteria into your body.
  • Clean cuts and bites well with soap and water. Use an antibiotic cream on the opened area to kill any germs, and cover the area with a non latex bandage.
    • It is a good idea to carry these items and antiseptic wipes in your purse, just in case you get a cut while away from home.
  • Hot tubs or saunas can cause your arm to swell due to sudden increases in your lymph circulation; it is a good idea to avoid them.
  • Use at least an SPF -25 sunscreen on your involved arm when you are outside or in the car. Reapply as needed throughout the day.
  • Use an insect repellant when you are at risk for bug bites. Bug bites can lead to infection in the arm on the side of surgery.

Do Not Constrict Your Arm / Leg

  • This can cause a "back up" of fluid in your arm.
  • Have your blood pressure taken in the other arm
  • Tight jewelry or clothing could cause your involved arm/leg to swell
  • If you had breast cancer, be sure that you wear a well fitting supportive bra. It is a good idea to have a certified bra fitter provide you with a bra after breast cancer surgery.
    • If you wear a prosthesis, be sure that it is light weight and comfortable.
  • It's a good idea to use a rolling suitcase for travel or carrying heavy/large items. Avoid carrying heavy shoulder bags or suitcases. If you must carry a bag, use your other arm.

Maintain Your Ideal Weight

  • Being overweight increases your chances of swelling.
  • Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Avoid foods containing excessive sodium.
  • Measure your food and write down what you eat. A registered dietitian can help you manage your diet.
  • Regular exercise helps to control your weight.

A Note About Exercise and Lifting Heavy Objects

Those at risk for lymphedema can and should exercise. Start with low intensity exercise and gradually increase intensity while monitoring for changes in your limb, including swelling or redness. If any swelling or redness occurs, stop the exercise and consult your physician. Any person at risk for lymphedema should consider wearing a compression garment with vigorous or very strenuous exercise.

Survivors were traditionally told to not lift anything heavier than 10 or 15 pounds. Research has found that women with lymphedema after breast cancer who lifted weights were stronger and experienced fewer flare-ups of their lymphedema than those who did not work out. Weight lifting should be done under the guidance of an experienced trainer and slowly progress from low levels of weight or resistance and increase after establishing that there is no worsening of lymphedema symptoms. This is important, as there will be a very small group of patients who do develop worsening symptoms. It is also important to note that these studies have not yet shown benefit for lower extremity edema.