Lymphedema is the accumulation of lymph fluid that obstructs the flow of the lymphatic system, causing persistent swelling of the affected body part. In the oncology setting, the most common causes of lymphedema are radiation therapy and lymph node dissection. Lymphedema can occur in one or more extremities and can involve the corresponding quadrant of the trunk. It can affect the head and neck, breast, genitalia, and lower limbs, depending upon surgeries and radiation therapy performed; however, it is most often reported in the upper extremities of women with breast cancer associated with axillary lymph node dissection and fibrosis after radiation therapy. Upper-extremity lymphedema occurs in 15%–28% of breast cancer survivors, is most common in those who had axillary lymph node dissection, and can present a few days or six to eight weeks after surgery or radiation therapy. Lower-extremity lymphedema occurs in as many as 80% of those who had lymph node dissection in the groin or those who have compression of pelvic or inguinal lymph nodes.

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This topic was updated on January 13, 2017. Learn more about these changes.

2011–2016 Authors

Jane M. Armer, RN, PhD, FAAN, Marcia Beck, ACNS-BC, CLT-LANA, Brenda Robertson Burns, MSN, RN, OCN®, Jie Deng, PhD, RN, OCN®, Mei R. Fu, PhD, RN, ACNS-BC, FAAN, Karen A. Giammicchio, MSN, APN, AOCNS®, Suzanne Lockwood, PhD, MSN, RN, OCN®, FAAN, Pamela Ostby, PhD, RN, OCN®, and Ellen Gordon Poage, MSN, FNP-C, MPH, CLT-LANA

ONS Staff: Margaret M. Irwin, PhD, RN, MN, Lee Ann Johnson, PhD, RN, Christine M. Maloney, BA, Kerri A. Moriarty, MLS, and Mark Vrabel, MLS, AHIP, ELS 


2009 Authors

Ellen G. Poage, MSN, ARNP, MPH, CLT-LANA and Jane M. Armer, RN, PhD, FAAN

ONS Staff: Heather Belansky, RN, MSN


2008 Authors

Ellen G. Poage, MSN, FNP-C, MPH, CLT-LANA, Marybeth Singer, MS, APRN-BC, AOCN®, ACHPN, M. Jeanne Shellabarger, RN, BSN, and Melanie D. Poundall, RN

Research Consultant: Jane M. Armer, RN, PhD

ONS Staff: Barbara G. Lubejko, RN, MS