Lymphoedema is an oedematous condition with a specific and complex tissue biology. In the clinical context of cancer, the pathogenesis of lymphoedema ensues most typically from the modalities employed to stage and treat the cancer (in particular, surgery and radiotherapy). Despite advances in cancer treatment, lifelong lymphoedema (limb swelling and the accompanying chronic inflammatory processes) affects approximately one in seven individuals treated for cancer, although estimates of lymphoedema prevalence following cancer treatment vary widely depending upon the diagnostic criteria used and the duration of follow-up. The natural history of cancer-associated lymphoedema is defined by increasing limb girth, fibrosis, inflammation, abnormal fat deposition and eventual marked cutaneous pathology, which also increases the risk of recurrent skin infections. Lymphoedema can substantially affect the daily quality of life of patients, as, in addition to aesthetic concerns, it can cause discomfort and affect the ability to carry out daily tasks. Clinical diagnosis is dependent on comparison of the affected region with the equivalent region on the unaffected side and, if available, with pre-surgical measurements. Surveillance is indicated in this high-risk population to facilitate disease detection at the early stages, when therapeutic interventions are most effective. Treatment modalities include conservative physical strategies that feature complex decongestive therapy (including compression garments) and intermittent pneumatic compression, as well as an emerging spectrum of surgical interventions, including liposuction for late-stage disease. The future application of pharmacological and microsurgical therapeutics for cancer-associated lymphoedema holds great promise.
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