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What you need to know

The lymphatic system

Fluid from the body’s tissues, known as lymph, circulates around the body in the lymphatic system. Thin tubes called lymphatic vessels carry the lymph to lymph nodes. The lymph nodes filter out harmful substances, like bacteria and viruses, so they can be destroyed. This helps to protect the body from infection. The lymph then passes into the main blood vessels, to be carried back into the body’s tissues.

Lymph nodes can be found all around the body, including in the:

  • armpit
  • groin
  • abodomen
  • chest
  • neck.

Secondary lymphoedema

Primary lymphoedema is a rare inherited condition in which lymph nodes and lymph vessels are absent or abnormal. However, the resources on this website focus on secondary lymphoedema. Secondary lymphoedema can occur after treatment for cancer. If lymph nodes are removed from the body by surgery or damaged by radiotherapy, lymph may not be able to flow freely through the lymphatic system. Lymph may then accumulate in some parts of the body, causing swelling.

Affected areas

Lymphoedema may affect the:

  • arm: for example, after treatment of the lymph nodes in the armpit
  • leg: for example, after the lymph nodes in the groin are removed
  • head and neck: for example, if local lymph nodes are affected.

Lymphoedema is NOT the same as the swelling or pain that immediately follows surgery and radiotherapy to the lymph nodes. Lymphoedema usually develops gradually, months or even years after cancer treatment.

If you have been diagnosed with lymphoedema you may have many questions about your condition. Talking to your doctor is important.

If you have received treatment for cancer, you may be concerned about the possibility of developing lymphoedema. The best person to discuss these concerns with is your doctor. This website provides some information about early signs and symptoms and ways to reduce your risks.

A consumer booklet, leaflet and an Indigenous brochure have been developed to provide information about reducing risk, signs and symptoms and management of secondary lymphoedema. These materials can be downloaded from this website (see Consumer Resources - below).

Consumer Resources

Lymphoedema - what you need to know
Understanding lymphoedema leaflet
Lymphoedema - Indigenous brochure