Your lymphatic system collects extra fluid from your body tissues. The lymphatic system carries the fluid back to the bloodstream, through your vessels and lymph nodes. The lymph nodes filter lymph fluid and help fight infections. If your lymph nodes are damaged or removed, lymph fluid builds up and causes lymphedema.
Your lymph nodes can be damaged by
- cancer treatments such as radiation therapy
- surgery (lymph nodes may be removed)
- inflammation (your body’s immune system response).
Breast cancer treatment is the most common cause of lymphedema. Most people with breast cancer do not get lymphedema.
Lymphoma, melanoma, uterine, prostate, vulvar or ovarian cancers and treatments are also associated with arm or leg lymphedema.
Your chance of getting lymphedema will also go up if you have
- more than one treatment in the same area (for example, surgery and radiation).
- extra body weight.
- repeated infections in the same arm or leg.
- Your sleeve, wristwatch, rings or socks leave marks in your skin.
- Your arm, leg or pelvis feels full, puffy or heavy.
- You have swelling in your arm or leg, including your fingers or toes.
- It is hard to move the joints in your arms or legs.
- Your skin is tight, warm, shiny, and thick or the texture has changed.
Lymphedema usually starts in your underarm, pelvis or groin (the area where your upper leg meets your pelvis). Lymph fluid then builds up in your chest, pelvis, arm or leg.
Lymphedema does not spread. If you get lymphedema, it will be in areas of your body where you have damaged lymph nodes. If you have damaged lymph nodes, you will always have a risk of getting lymphedema.