Lymphedema - self-care

Alternative Names

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

What is Lymphedema

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.

Lymphedema is the build-up of lymph in your body. The buildup can cause an arm, leg, or other 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:

DO NOT 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

Call your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:


Cheville AL, Gamble GL. Lymphedema. In: Cronenwett JL, Johnston KW, eds. Rutherford's Vascular Surgery. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 67.

National Cancer Institute. PDQ - Lymphedema. Updated July 17, 2015. Accessed March 22, 2016.

Review Date: 3/13/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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