Can Men Get Lymphedema After Cancer Treatment?

Male doctor in discussion with patient in exam room taking notes on tablet computer

Cancer treatment may cause lymphedema as a side effect. In some cases, the tumor itself causes lymphedema.


AWARENESS OF LYMPHEDEMA – excessive, debilitating swelling related to lymph node blockage – is growing, particularly as it affects women after breast cancer treatment. However, men can get lymphedema, too.

Treatments like surgery for prostate cancer, or cancer itself, may lead to chronic swelling in the legs and lower body. Lymphedema can also result from cancers of the upper body, or of the head and neck. The stubborn condition wreaks physical and emotional distress for men and women alike.

Primary lymphedema, a variation, affects children at birth. Here’s what to understand about lymphedema risks, symptoms, treatment advances and coping methods.

What Is Lymphedema?

The lymphatic or lymph system, part of the body’s immune system, also plays a role in fluid balance, including drainage of the watery fluid called lymph, which transports white blood cells to fight bacterial, viral and other infections. A network of lymph vessels, ducts and hundreds of lymph nodes branches out into the body.

You can feel lymph nodes if they become enlarged, for instance with an infection, in your armpits (or axillae), groin or back of the knees.

Lymph node involvement in cancer typically occurs from cancer that has spread from other parts of the body. Lymph nodes may be removed as part of surgery to treat cancer. Even healthy lymph nodes can be damaged in the course of cancer surgery and radiation.

Lymphedema – when fluid backup occurs as lymph node drainage is hampered – can result. Although lymphedema can be managed, there is no cure. Estimates vary widely, with some studies suggesting about 3 million people in the U.S. are affected by lymphedema.

Cancer-Related Lymphedema

Among both sexes, “In terms of cancers that cause lymphedema, the No. 1 most common is breast cancer,” says Dr. Brandon Mahal, a physician with the department of radiation oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Men can get breast cancer and related lymphedema, too. Next are cancers such as sarcoma, melanoma and women’s gynecological cancers, with men’s genitourinary cancers of the penis, genitals or prostate lower on the list.

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