The human body is covered by a special type of drainage system called the lymphatic system. This system is responsible for transporting excess fluid from the organs and tissues of the body in a fluid called lymph. Lymph fluid will contain various types of cells and substances that are no longer needed. The lymph fluid will be transported through the lymphatic drainage system and pass through small nodules or nodes that act as filters. They are responsible for filtering out the unwanted substances. If one lymph node is not able to filter these substances then the lymph fluid will move further along the drainage system. Cancerous cells which break off from an organ which has cancer can also travel in this way and can then affect other areas of the body.
Lymphoedema is swelling that develops because of a build-up of fluid in the body’s tissues. This happens when the lymphatic system, which normally drains fluid away, isn’t working properly.
It is a condition that may occur following surgery or radiotherapy to the groin area. Sometimes radiotherapy or surgery to the lymph nodes may compromise the drainage of the lymph fluid in the pelvic area and this in turn causes it to accumulate without being able to drain away normally. Sometimes lymphodema can cause the scrotum or penis to swell. Lymphoedema will need to be assessed by the specialist health care team and reatment for this condition may involve gentle massage of the surrounding lymph nodes in the groin or abdomen to help promote a normal flow of the lymph fluid as well as supportive surgical dressings. Treatment may be given over several months.
To help prevent lymphoedema it is extremely important to ensure meticulous skin hygiene and care.
- Try and avoid scratches or bites on the legs, for instance from insects (use insect repellent) or pets. Try and keep vulnerable areas covered if possible. If men do get a cut or scratch no matter how small, it is advisable to wash it with soap and water and use an antiseptic cream such as Savlon to try and prevent any infection. If the area becomes red, painful or swollen men will need to see their GP to rule out possible infection and may need to be prescribed antibiotics.
- Avoid sunburn to the area. Ensure a high factor sun is used if the area is going to be exposed to strong sunlight. Avoid extremes of temperature to the area.
- If men need need to shave their leg for any reason they should use an electric razor rather than a wet shave.
- Avoid inoculations and injections in the affected leg. This includes complementary treatments such as acupuncture.
- To maintain a healthy blood circulation which will help transport lymph fluid normally men should try and avoid wearing tight garments such as socks or trousers that may restrict blood flow. They should also avoid becoming overweight and standing still or on their feet for excessive periods of time.
- Try and remember to move legs every so often and avoid keeping them crossed for long periods of time.
For more advice on managing lymphoedema please see the Lymphoedema Support Network and Macmillan Cancer Care below.
To read personal stories of men who have been affected and treated for penile cancer please click here
Updated November 2019. Next review due November 2020.
References available on request.