In my role as a lymphatic drainage massage therapist, I frequently assist clients who have faced cancer, undergoing treatments like lymph node removal, chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation.

Many of these patients struggle with lymphedema. Many have the need for compression garments and require  lymphatic drainage sessions to stay on top of the edema. There are also many other lifestyle restrictions.

But what causes this condition, and how can you reduce your symptoms?

Let’s find out!

What Causes Lymphedema?


Lymphedema self-care starts with understanding what causes it. One of the primary causes of lymphedema is cancer treatment. This happens for a couple of reasons.

For example, if you have a cancerous tumor that is large enough to block the lymph system, it can lead to lymphedema.

Other causes include surgery, removal of lymph nodes, and even the vessels carrying lymph fluid. Radiation treatment damages lymph vessels and remaining lymph nodes, which can lead to a build-up of lymph fluid. The continued contraction of the radiated area also affects lymph flow. Scar tissue from surgery affects the flow of lymph through specific areas.

What Are the Symptoms of Lymphedema?

Lymphedema causes symptoms like:

  • Swelling and an uncomfortable heavy, achy feeling in your legs or arms that can affect your fingers and toes.
  • Swelling that is soft to the touch but typically not painful in the beginning.
  • Reduced range of motion due to swelling.
  • Weakness in your arm or leg.
  • Red, itchy, warm skin, which is a sign of infection and must be immediately treated by your doctor with antibiotics.
  • Hardened skin, which is typically stage 3 lymphedema.
  • Difficulty healing from wounds or infections due to compromised circulation.
  • Tight, uncomfortable skin and no indentation left after pressing on the skin, which is stage 2 lymphedema.
  • Difficulty moving the head or neck (if fluid is present there).
  • Tight swelling on your face and under your chin.

Lymphedema After Cancer

Lymphedema is widely misdiagnosed, especially if your case is considered mild or in the latent stage zero. Oftentimes clients have latent lymphedema that leaves the arms or legs feeling heavy and tired, but the swelling is minimal and sometimes undetected by doctors. Experts estimate that anywhere from 5% to 40% of women will have lymphedema after breast cancer surgery. Suppose you have complete axillary lymph node dissection or lymph nodes at specific locations in the body. In that case, you’re at also at risk for lymphedema after surgery.

Chemotherapy, radiation and mastectomies are more likely to increase your risk of lymphedema after cancer treatment. So, how do you take care of yourself and deal with lymphedema properly?

Lymphedema Self Care And Treatment

There are a few steps I recommend for lymphedema self-care and treatment.

-Strive to protect your skin. Use sunscreen or cover up with clothing when in the sun. Keep your feet dry and clean. Your nails should also be kept short to prevent ingrown nails. Tight shoes and jewelry should be avoided.

-Exercise. It may be challenging to exercise after cancer treatment. I understand. Your body has changed and you are learning what your limitations are. You are also “relearning” how to be comfortable in your body. Even so, light movement and muscle contraction can help tremendously (of course contact your surgeon before attempting any new exercise after surgery or cancer treatment). Swimming is an excellent form of exercise for gentle movement, and the water acts as a natural compression that is beneficial for lymphedema. I also recommend gentle yoga or working with a Pilates Instructor who understands your restrictions. The key is to find something you love and stick with it. Simply walking to move the body is also an excellent choice.

Manual Lymph Drainage Massage is an excellent option to carefully and correctly reduce lymphedema symptoms after cancer treatment. Make sure you work with a Certified Lymphatic Therapist who has had Complete Decongestive Therapy training. 

Bonus Tips for Treating Lymphedema

Use compression garments. Wear special clothes like compression stockings, or compression sleeves and gloves for the arms and hands, compression bras or tops, compression shorts. For lymphedema of the face and head there are custom garments available. Ask your doctor or physical therapist about the best way to use compression garments.

Your doctor should also tell you about compression devices like special pumps or even laser therapy that can help you treat your lymphedema. Sometimes insurance will cover garments and special pumps.

Take Care Of Yourself With Lymphatic Drainage Massage

Lymphedema is more than just an uncomfortable symptom of cancer treatment. Lymphedema is a lifelong challenge and raises your risk of infection. It hinders your body’s ability to heal wounds. There are also the mental and emotional side effects. You may feel depressed, embarrassed, or even angry about suffering from this condition.

I am here to help you reduce your pain, both physical and emotional.

Call me if you’re suffering from lymphedema and want to schedule a lymphatic drainage massage or a phone consultation. You are not alone and there is support available.