Gynecologic Cancer and Lymphedema

Author: Andrea Branas, MSE, MPT, CLT and Joy Cohn, PT, DPT, CLT (Good Shepherd Penn Partners)
Content Contributor: Allyson Distel, MPH
Last Reviewed: December 06, 2023

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is when fluid (lymph) collects anywhere in your body and causes swelling (edema).

Lymphedema after Gynecologic Cancer Treatment

Some people get lymphedema after cancer treatment. Surgery that takes out or injures lymph nodes or radiation treatment to the pelvis may harm lymph nodes in that area. For women with gynecologic cancers, the swelling will be in the legs, abdomen (belly), or groin area.

Lymphedema Symptoms

If you notice any of these symptoms, tell your doctor, nurse, or cancer rehabilitation specialist:

  • Swelling in your abdomen, groin area, legs, or feet.
  • Numbness, tingling, or achiness in your legs or feet.
  • A feeling of heaviness in your legs or feet.
  • Not being able to move your legs as well.
  • Your clothing or shoes feel tight.
  • You gain weight for no known reason.

Lymphedema Precautions

Lymphedema cannot be prevented. Do not blame yourself if you get lymphedema.

What you can do to lessen swelling:

  • Wear clothing that fits. Do not wear tight clothing and elastic bands on socks or underwear.
  • Do not go barefoot. Wear tie shoes that fit well and cover your whole foot. Always wear socks to avoid skin irritation.
  • Do not have injections (shots) in the legs or buttocks.
  • Stay out of the hot weather. Use an air conditioner in the summer.
  • Do not take hot showers or baths, and do not use hot tubs.
  • Do not sunbathe. Protect your legs from the sun. Use a sunscreen with at least an SPF 30.
  • Use insect repellent if you will be around bugs that bite.
  • Protect cuts and bruises.
  • Do not cut cuticles.
  • Clipping toenails can cause injury. Be careful or have a podiatrist (foot doctor) cut your toenails.
  • Use an electric razor for hair removal.
  • If traveling by airplane, walk around the cabin often and pump your ankles during the flight.

Lymphedema Treatment

It is best to see a doctor who knows about lymphedema. If a diagnosis of lymphedema is made, you should see a Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT). The treatment for lymphedema is called Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT).

Complete Decongestive Therapy has many types of treatments, which are:

  • Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD)
    • This technique gently stretches the skin to redirect lymph to healthy lymph nodes, where swelling can be soaked up.
  • Compression Bandaging
    • The use of foam and special bandages called short-stretch bandages.
  • Careful skin and nail care
  • Active exercises to help decrease swelling.
  • Elastic compression garments that fit snugly on the swollen part.
    • Elastic garments are fitted after the swelling is reduced.
  • Self Care
    • Lymphedema is chronic (long-lasting). It can become worse if not treated by trained experts.
    • People with lymphedema must learn to take proper care of themselves.

Your Certified Lymphedema Therapist will talk with you about which of these treatments is best for you.


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