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Lymphedema - self-care

Breast cancer - self-care for lymphedema; Mastectomy - self-care for lymphedema


Lymphedema is the buildup of lymph in your body. Lymph is a fluid surrounding tissues. Lymph moves through vessels in the lymph system and into the bloodstream. The lymph system is a major part of the immune system.

What is Lymphedema

When lymph builds up, it can cause an arm, leg, or another area of your body to swell and become painful. The disorder can be lifelong.

What to Expect

Lymphedema may start 6 to 8 weeks after surgery or after radiation treatment for cancer.

It can also start very slowly after your cancer treatment is over. You may not notice symptoms for 18 to 24 months after treatment. Sometimes it can take years to develop.

Ways to Help Relieve Swelling

Use your arm that has lymphedema for everyday activities, such as combing your hair, bathing, dressing, and eating. Rest this arm above the level of your heart 2 or 3 times a day while you are lying down.

Taking Care of Your Skin

Every day, clean the skin of your arm or leg that has lymphedema. Use lotion to keep your skin moist. Check your skin every day for any changes.

Protect your skin from injuries, even small ones:

Take care of your feet:

Don't put too much pressure on your arm or leg with lymphedema:

Taking care of cuts and scratches:

Taking care of burns:

Living with lymphedema can be hard. Ask your provider about visiting a physical therapist who can teach you about:

If you are prescribed a compression sleeve:

When to Call the Doctor

Contact your provider if you have any of these symptoms:

Related Information

Breast lump removal
Breast cancer
Breast external beam radiation - discharge
Chest radiation - discharge
Surgical wound care - open


National Cancer Institute website. Lymphedema (PDQ) - health professional version. Updated August 28, 2019. Accessed July 1, 2022.

Spinelli BA. Clinical conditions in patients with breast cancer. In: Skirven TM, Osterman AL, Fedorczyk JM, eds. Rehabilitation of the Hand and Upper Extremity. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 115.


Review Date: 1/25/2022  

Reviewed By: Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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