Fluid Retention or Edema

Aprobado por la Junta Editorial de Cancer.Net, 09/2021

Edema is swelling caused by too much fluid building up inside the body. It is most common in the legs and feet, but can also happen in the hands, arms, face, and abdomen.

Doctors call fluid collecting in the lining of the abdomen ascites. When it happens around the lungs, doctors call it pleural effusion.

What are the causes of edema?

Edema is a common condition for people with cancer. It can be caused by cancer, cancer treatment, or another problem that is unrelated to the cancer. Common causes of edema in people with cancer include:

Certain types of cancer. Some types of cancer, like kidney, liver, and ovarian cancers, are more likely to cause edema.

Chemotherapy. Some types of chemotherapy, including cisplatin and docetaxel (Taxotere), can cause edema.

Other medications. Other medications given during cancer treatment or to treat other health conditions can cause edema. These include:

  • Steroid medications

  • Hormone replacement therapy

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as ibuprofen or naproxen

  • Some blood pressure medications

Nutrition problems. Low levels of protein in the blood, caused by poor nutrition, can lead to edema. This condition can cause fluid to leak from inside blood vessels to the surrounding tissue.

Physical inactivity. People with cancer may be unable to exercise or find it more difficult to exercise. This can cause fluid to collect in the legs. Regular physical activity helps pump extra fluid back to the heart and prevents edema. Talk with your health care team about how to add more physical activity into your daily routine.

Other health problems. Edema can also be a side effect of kidney, liver, or heart problems. A blood clot in the leg or arm can cause swelling. Damage to lymph nodes and lymph vessels during surgery can also cause edema. When this happens, it is called lymphedema.

What are the symptoms of edema?

If you have edema, you might have the following symptoms.

  • Puffiness, swelling, or a "heavy" feeling

  • Feeling that clothes, shoes, or jewelry are too tight on your body

  • Less flexibility of the joints in your arms and legs, such as your ankles, wrists, and fingers

  • Shiny, tight, or stiff skin

  • A dent when you press on the skin (unless edema is severe)

  • Sudden or rapid weight gain

  • Lower amount of urine than usual

Tell your health care team if you experience any of the above symptoms. Relieving side effects is an important part of cancer care and treatment. This is called palliative care or supportive care. It helps someone, with any type or stage of cancer, feel better.

How is edema diagnosed?

To learn if you have edema, your doctor may check whether they can leave a dent by pressing the skin of the swollen area. They will probably ask about recent weight gain, whether your clothes or jewelry feel right, and other symptoms. You may also need blood and urine tests and X-rays.

How is edema managed?

If edema is caused by medication, poor nutrition, or a lack of exercise, adjusting medications and trying to improve nutrition and physical activity can treat edema. If edema caused by cancer or by other health conditions, you and your health care team can work together to treat the underlying cause and to reduce swelling and relieve symptoms directly.

Treating edema with medications. A type of medication called a diuretic may be able to help relieve edema. Diuretics are also called water pills. They help you urinate more to get rid of extra fluid.

Eating and exercise changes. Eating a balanced diet, especially watching how much salt you eat, can help relieve edema. Walking and other exercises can make you feel better. Do not reduce the amount of water or other fluids you drink without talking to your doctor.

Managing discomfort. At home, there are some ways to try relieving discomfort from edema.

  • Raise the affected area when sitting or lying down to reduce swelling

  • Avoid standing for long periods or sitting with your legs crossed

  • Wear compression stockings, special gloves, or elastic sleeves to help push fluids back into your circulation system

  • Wear loose-fitting clothing and shoes

Physical therapy and occupational therapy. For some people with edema, physical therapy and occupational therapy can help. Talk to your health care team about these or other cancer rehabilitative professionals could help relieve your edema. Learn more about cancer rehabilitation.

Questions to ask the health care team

Consider asking your health care team these questions about edema:

  • Is edema a common side effect of the type of cancer I have or the cancer treatment I will receive?

  • What are the signs and symptoms of edema that I should watch out for?

  • What treatment options or symptom relief options are available for the symptoms of edema that I have? Which treatment or lifestyle changes do you recommend?

  • What is causing the edema?

  • Who should I talk to about any discomfort or other side effects I am experiencing?

  • How can I get in touch with them?

Related Resources


Leg Swelling After Cancer Treatment

Managing the Fear of Side Effects Caused by Cancer Treatment

More Information

National Cancer Institute: Edema (Swelling) and Cancer Treatment