7 Tips: How to Prevent Swelling in Your Arm after Breast Cancer Treatment

1) Wear your compression garment

It is ideal to have a compression garment on hand, especially for use on any flight or when exercising. Talk to your doctor to obtain a prescription, and then visit a garment supply store such as Nightengale Medical (www.nightingalemedical.ca/) or MacDonald’s Pharmacy (www.macdonaldsrx.com/) to find the right compression for you.

It is important to wear a compression sleeve when flying any distance, even for a short flight. This is because the atmospheric pressure that is normally is exerted upon your arm is reduced during flight, and may prevent fluid flowing into the arm from being removed as it normally would. The compression garment provides some supportive pressure to aid in fluid removal through normal channels such as lymphatic pathways and muscle pumping.

I would also recommend wearing a compression garment during exercise. This is because during exercise, even in a normal healthy limb, some swelling may occur. Wearing a compression garment during exercise may prevent this normal swelling, and may help prevent lymphedema. The best way to determine if an exercise is safe for you is to measure your arm before and after exercise. See the next tip for more details.

2) Measure your arm regularly

The best way to determine if an exercise or activity is safe for you is to measure your arm before the exercise or activity, and then again 24 hours after the exercise or activity. As noted above, some increase in arm volume after exercise may be normal and not indicative of lymphedema. The arm should return to the pre-exercise measurements 24 hours after the exercise or activity. If some increase in arm volume remains after 24 hours, this is probably not a good activity for you.

The best way to measure your arm is to use the following landmarks: wrist, middle of forearm (ideally pick a mark or freckle that will be a consistent reference point to measure at), elbow crease, middle of upper arm, and armpit. Measure yourself in the same way each time, for example, if you rest your arm on a table, do this every time you measure. If you notice an increase in arm volume, feel heaviness in your arm, or notice your rings or watch are tighter, seek manual lymph drainage right away.

3) Seek manual lymph drainage

Some studies indicate that manual lymph drainage may prevent arm lymphedema, so you may want to visit an RMT certified in Dr. Vodder’s manual lymph drainage regularly for prevention of lymphedema. However, if you notice an increase in arm volume, seeking manual lymph drainage is vital. If you are in the Vancouver area, visit our website to make an appointment with a therapist: www.lymphaticmassageclinic.com. Lymphedema is a chronic condition, but manual lymph drainage and combined decongestive therapy can help to minimize its effects. If you are not in Vancouver, visit the Vodder school website to find a therapist near you: www.vodderschool.com/contacts/therapist.

4) Wear gloves during daily activities

Preventing injury to your arm is very important. If you are at risk for lymphedema, you are also at risk of cellulitis, an infection of the tissue, which can be life-threatening. Therefore, wearing gloves during activities such as gardening can help to keep your arm and hand safe from cuts.
Wearing gloves when washing dishes in hot water is also a good idea, to prevent excess fluid from flowing into the arm in response to the high temperature.

5) Protect your arm from summertime hazards

Just as the above tip, you want to prevent your arm from any damage. This includes bug bites, and sun burns, so make sure to wear protection from both of these elements.

6) Do regular self-massage

Performing regular self-massage can be an easy way to help your body’s lymphatic flow. See my video for a simple self-massage routine for drying off after a shower: www.lymphaticmassageclinic.com/apps/blog/show/43745204-how-to-promote-lymph-flow-for-cancer-survivors. Also, keep your eyes peeled for future videos on I’m planning on exercise routines for improving lymphatic health, in the Education section of my website: www.lymphaticmassageclinic.com/apps/blog/

7) Seek social support

People who have poor social support are at greater risk for developing lymphedema after breast cancer treatment. A great resource in Vancouver is Inspire Health, a free service for people with a cancer diagnosis: www.inspirehealth.ca/. You can also check out Personal Best Exercise Therapy for group fitness classes or one-on-one support: www.pbet.ca/services-3/. Or browse the BC Lymphedema Association page for many more resources: www.bclymph.org/.


Lymphoedema Framework. Best Practice for the Management of Lymphoedema. International consensus. London: MEP Ltd, 2006. Retrieved from www.lympho.org/resources.php

Dorit Tidhar. Aqua Lymphatic Therapy. Class notes. 2015.

Zimmerman, A., et. al. Efficacy of manual lymph drainage in preventing secondary lymphedema after breast cancer surgery. University of Borowska. Wroclaw: Poland. Lymphology 45 (2012) 103-112.