Cancer and Lymphedema Therapy

Cancer Physical Therapy and Lymphedema

Cancer and Lymphedema Therapy

Oncology physical therapy is an integral component of the Northwestern Medicine multidisciplinary approach to cancer treatment. Our physical therapists have specialized training in post-surgical and post-treatment effects on function, motion, scar tissue, lymphedema and balance.

Through the use of highly personalized treatment sessions, our therapists can:

  • Prevent and reduce cancer-related fatigue and pain
  • Increase muscle mass, strength and endurance
  • Restore balance
  • Improve functionality in performing daily activities
  • Protect against common side effects of chemotherapy and radiation
  • Manage weight and lymphedema
  • Regain shoulder range of motion following breast cancer surgery
  • Improve overall quality of life and physical fitness


Lymphedema, the swelling of an arm, leg or other body part caused by the accumulation of lymph fluid, is a common post-cancer surgery or post-radiation occurrence in women and men. It can cause tissue swelling, skin changes, increased risk for chronic infections and slowing of tissue healing.

Symptoms of Lymphedema

You may be at risk for developing lymphedema immediately following treatments or even many years later. Talk to your physician and ask for a referral for lymphedema therapy if you experience any of the following symptoms in the affected limb:

  • Discomfort, heaviness or achiness
  • Progressively increased size
  • Increased warmth
  • Difficulty fitting into clothing
  • Red patches on the skin
  • Puffiness
  • Changes that happen either slowly or quickly

Our oncology therapists are certified lymphedema therapists, qualified to implement complete decongestive therapy, a non-invasive and painless therapy that includes:

  • Compression bandages between treatments to prevent the fluid from re-accumulating
  • Exercise with bandaging to increase tissue pressure and movement of lymph fluid
  • Manual lymph drainage to reroute lymph fluid around blocked areas
  • Skin care to decrease risk of infections

    Related Resources

    Learn more about our therapy services.