About Gynecologic Cancer and Lymphedema

Andrea Branas, MSE, MPT, CLT and Joy Cohn, PT, DPT, CLT
Good Shepherd Penn Partners
Last Modified: October 21, 2013

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What is Lymphedema?

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

Lymphedema after Gynecologic Cancer Treatment

Some people develop lymphedema after cancer treatment. Surgery that removes lymph nodes or radiation treatment to the pelvis may damage lymph nodes in that area. For women with gynecologic cancers the swelling will be in the legs, abdomen or groin area.

Lymphedema Symptoms

If you notice any of the following symptoms, notify 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.
  • 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 develop lymphedema.

What you can do to minimize swelling:

  • Wear clothing that fits properly. Avoid tight clothing and elastic bands on socks or underwear
  • Do not go barefoot. Wear tie shoes that fit well and cover your entire 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.
  • Avoid hot showers and baths, including hot tubs.
  • Avoid sunbathing. Protect your legs from the sun. Use a sunscreen with at least an SPF 30.
  • Apply an insect repellent if you will be exposed to biting bugs.
  • Protect cuts and bruises.
  • Do not cut cuticles.
  • Avoid injury while clipping toenails or have a podiatrist cut your toenails.
  • If you must remove hair, 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 is knowledgeable 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 several types of treatments. They include:

  • Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD)
    • This technique gently stretches the skin to redirect lymph to healthy lymph nodes, where swelling can be absorbed.
  • 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 area.
    • Elastic garments are fitted after the swelling is reduced.
  • Self Care
    • Lymphedema is chronic (long lasting). It can become worse if not treated by qualified professionals.
    • People with lymphedema must learn to take proper care of themselves.

Your Certified Lymphedema Therapist will discuss which of these treatments is best for you.