Have you recently been diagnosed with breast cancer?  Maybe you are about to go through the surgical procedure or you have already been through it, and you are now experiencing gradual swelling in your arm.  This is called lymphoedema.  Being prepared for what lies ahead will equip you to manage and maintain your quality of life.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, you probably will have to undergo surgery for the removal of the cancerous tumour.  Depending on how far it has spread, the amount of tissue that needs to be removed will be determined.  Often surgery includes the removal of lymph nodes.

Lymph nodes are important structures situated in certain areas of the body that is responsible for the removal of waste in the body.  Lymphatic vessels transport lymph through vessels to the lymph nodes.  The nodes trap and filter dangerous substances, such as cancer cells.  During the surgical removal of cancer, lymph nodes are examined and often removed.  These specific lymph nodes are situated in the axilla (armpit).  Due to the removal of these crucial lymph nodes, the ability of the lymphatic system to drain fluid in the surrounding tissue is compromised, resulting in gradual swelling of the arm – lymphoedema.

Lymphoedema is visible swelling due to the accumulation of lymph-fluid in the surface tissue.

Radiation could possible exacerbate the lymphoedema.

To learn more about the lymphatic system visit https://www.breastcancer.org.

Signs and symptoms:

  • Swelling in your arm, chest, hand or breast
  • Decrease in arm mobility
  • Skin tightness
  • Clothes and jewellery becomes tighter around your arm
  • Arms feeling heavy
  • Numbness, tingling, aching or itchiness

Swelling may occur within days up to 30 years.  It is advised to consult a therapist to assist you with a treatment plan to manage your lymphoedema.  Treatment of lympoedema includes one modality in conjunction with another.  Treating lymphoedema encourages lymph to drain away.


  • Elevation:  Rest your arm on a pillow so that your hand is above your elbow and your elbow above your shoulder.
  • Manual lymph drainage (MLD): A light touch of gentle, rhythmical strokes to move the excess fluid in the direction of normal flow. Takes 45-60 minutes 4 days a week.
  • Compression bandages/garments:  Bandages/garments causing compressive forces to push the lymph fluid. Once volume is reduced with MLD, bandages is applied where after exercise will further improve the effect.
  • Exercise:  If you have fitted a pressure garment, wear this during exercise.  Opening and closing the hand or squeezing a rubber ball while elevating.  Swimming, aerobic and strengthening exercises.  Abdominal breathing exercise. See attached document for more exercises.
  • Kinesiotaping:  Mimic and enhance the effect of manual lymph drainage.
  • Skin care:  Moisturise and protect your skin from injury and infection.

Understanding lymphoedema and knowing how to manage it will help you take control.  You might need to get support from therapists and family and friends, but over time you will be able to manage this in your everyday life.