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Preventing Lymphedema After Treatment for Breast Cancer: Care Instructions

Lymph nodes

Your Care Instructions

Lymphedema is a buildup of fluid in the soft tissues of the body. It can happen in the arm after breast cancer surgery to remove lymph nodes. If there are few or no lymph nodes, fluid can build up in the arm. It can also happen if the lymph system in an arm has been damaged. Infection, tumours, and scar tissue from radiation therapy to the armpit area also can cause fluid to build up.

You may be able to avoid lymphedema or keep it under control by following the tips below. Make sure that you take good care of the skin on your arm and hand. Your skin acts as a barrier to keep out bacteria and prevent infection. It is also important not to overuse the muscles in the arm. And don't expose your arm to very hot or cold temperatures.

Lymphedema can happen soon after breast cancer treatment. Or it may happen many years later. It may affect only part of your arm or hand. In some cases, it affects all of the arm. Make sure to follow these precautions even after you finish treatment. Do not ignore tightness or swelling in or around your arm or hand. You are less likely to have long-term problems if you get these symptoms treated right away.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

Skin care

  • Keep your arm, hand, and armpit clean. Use a mild soap that does not dry out your skin.
  • Moisturize your skin often.
  • Take good care of the skin around your fingernails. Do not bite or cut your cuticles.
  • Ask your doctor how to handle any cuts, scratches, insect bites, or other injuries you may get.
  • Use sunscreen and insect repellent outdoors to protect your skin from sunburn and insect bites.
  • Use an electric razor if you shave your armpit. It's less likely to cut or irritate your skin.


  • Don't wear clothing or jewellery that is tight on your arm or hand. Your doctor may advise you not to wear a watch or rings on the affected hand.
  • Wear gloves when you do activities that could hurt the skin on your fingers or hand. Wear them when you garden, do yard work, wash dishes, and clean with chemicals. Use oven mitts when you handle hot food.
  • Do not have blood drawn from the arm on the side of the lymph node surgery. Do not get injections (shots) or have an IV put in the affected arm.
  • Do not allow a blood pressure cuff to be placed on that arm. If you are in the hospital, make sure you tell your nurse and other hospital staff about your condition.
  • Do not expose your arm to very hot or very cold temperatures. For example, don't use hot tubs, saunas, or steam rooms. Don't use a heating pad or cold pack on that arm or shoulder.
  • Rest your arm often when you do repeated movements, such as vacuum, scrub, or mop.
  • Try to use your other arm to carry heavy things, such as grocery bags. If you carry a briefcase or a purse, avoid shoulder straps and carry it on your good arm.
  • Ask your doctor about wearing a compression sleeve and glove (gauntlet). Your doctor may want you to wear these when you exercise or when you fly in an airplane. They can help keep fluid from pooling in your arm and hand.


  • Ask your doctor about exercises for your arm and hand. Your doctor may recommend that you see a physiotherapist. This person can teach you how to do self-massage to move fluid out of your arm.
  • Check with your doctor before you start exercises that use the arm. This includes tennis, rowing, or weight lifting. Your doctor can help you find an activity level that's right for you.

When should you call for help?

Call your doctor or nurse advice line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the area.
    • Pus draining from the area.
    • A fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse advice line if:

  • You have new or worse symptoms from lymphedema.
  • You do not get better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

Go to

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.