Diet and Nutrition

Lymphedema and Diet Q&A

May 14, 2018   /



Reviewed and updated by Anne Danahy MS, RDN, LDN

This Q&A patient handout highlights questions that patients frequently ask and answers from Nutrition411 Editorial Board Member Anne Danahy, MS, RDN, LDN. Anne is a registered dietitian nutritionist in Scottsdale, Arizona, with almost 20 years of outpatient clinical and community nutrition experience. She is also a board member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.


What is lymphedema?

Lymph is the fluid that contains lymphocytes, which are white blood cells that play a crucial role in immunity. Plasma is also in lymph. Plasma is the part of the blood that carries the blood cells. Under normal conditions, the lymph vessels help the lymph to travel through the body and return to the bloodstream, and lymph nodes filter the lymph and store the white blood cells. Clusters of these lymph nodes are found in the axillary area (armpit), pelvis, neck, abdomen, and groin.

In lymphedema, the lymph system is damaged and/or blocked, so the fluid collects in the extremities. Lymphedema most often affects the extremities, but it also can affect other areas, such as the abdomen.


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What is the relationship between lymphedema and cancer?

Lymphedema can occur following any cancer or cancer treatment that disrupts lymph flow, such as with lymph node removal. Most of the time, this lymphedema develops in the 3 years following surgery. It frequently occurs in breast cancer patients who have had a mastectomy with removal of axillary lymph nodes. Lymphedema of the legs can occur following operations for uterine cancer, prostate cancer, lymphoma, or melanoma. Lymphedema also may occur with vulvar or ovarian cancers.

Risk factors include:

  • Removal or radiation of lymph nodes in the armpits, groin, pelvis, or neck
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Delayed wound healing after the operation
  • A tumor that impacts the left lymph duct, lymph nodes, or vessels in the neck, chest, armpits, pelvis, or abdomen
  • Development of scar tissue in the lymph ducts under the collarbone


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