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Chemotherapy Side Effect: Fluid Retention & Swelling—How to Cope

By Britta Aragon on June 7, 2011 | 27 Comments

When I was going through chemotherapy, I experienced a difficult side effect that I never expected—fluid retention. I had prepared myself for hair loss and fatigue, but if anything I thought I would lose weight, not look like I had gained it because my face, arms, hands, and feet were swollen and I looked puffy!

“Has anyone else had trouble with fluid retention/swelling?” writes survivor ColleenN. “All of a sudden in the past week I put on over 7 pounds with lots of swelling in my ankles, and some in my knees, stomach, and hands. My ankles weren’t even this puffy when I was pregnant.”

Fluid retention occurs when your body can’t remove fluid from the tissues as easily as usual, so it remains longer than it should, building up in certain areas like the hands and feet. The lymphatic system, hormones, and your diet can all play a part in swelling, as these are the key players in fluid buildup and removal.

Cancer and cancer treatments can cause fluid retention for several reasons, including: 1) hormonal changes from your therapy; 2) the effects of the drugs themselves (many drugs can cause fluid retention); 3) related heart disease, liver disease, or kidney failure; 4) a blockage in the veins or lymph system; 5) malnutrition; or 6) other effects of the cancer itself. Usually the swelling will occur in the hands, feet, ankles, face, and abdomen, though it can occur anywhere. Swelling may also occur as part of an allergic reaction to medications or other substances.

How can you be sure you have this sort of swelling? If your hands, legs, face, or stomach have swollen up, you can probably recognize it visually, or you may have noticed the weight gain. You can also check for these signs:

  • When you press on the skin over the swollen area, it leaves an indentation for a few seconds.
  • Your hands feel tight when you try to grasp something or make a fist.
  • Your rings, socks, belts, or other pieces of clothing feel tight.
  • You feel bloated a lot.
  • You feel a shortness of breath, particularly when you lay down.

If you have one or more of these symptoms, be sure to check with your doctor right away, especially if you’re short of breath, the swelling seems to move up your arms or legs, it built up really quickly, or your hands or feet feel cold to the touch. Your doctor may prescribe medications that can help your body release the fluid. Otherwise, try some of these remedies at home:

  • Cut down on your salt intake—try not to eat salt at all. Be especially careful of canned soups, lunch meats, bacon and ham, soy sauce, potato chips, and the like.
  • If your feet or legs are swollen, elevate them as often as possible by sitting in a reclining chair or on a couch with your feet up on pillows. Try not to stand for long periods at a time.
  • Avoid tight clothing, and consider stockings and hose that are made for managing fluid retention (ask your doctor or nurse).
  • Weigh yourself at the same time every day. Tell your doctor if you gain or lose five pounds or more in a week.
  • Eat bananas and raisins. They’re high in potassium, which helps your body eliminate fluid.
  • Use a bag of frozen veggies or a cold towel on swollen ankles and hands.
  • Try natural diuretics like cabbage and cranberry juice.
  • Drink water. May seem counterintuitive, but water helps flush your system of fluids.

Have you experienced this side effect? How did you cope with it?

Sources include:

  • Swelling (Fluid Retention). National Cancer Institute. Cancer.gov. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/chemo-side-effects/swelling.
  • Swelling. Chemocare.com. http://www.chemocare.com/managing/swelling.asp.
  • The Editors of Consumer Guide. “8 Home Remedies for Water Retention.” Discovery Fit & Health. http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/natural-medicine/home-remedies/home-remedies-for-water-retention.htm.

Photo courtesy bionerd via Flickr.com.

Posted in: Side Effects


27 Comments to “Chemotherapy Side Effect: Fluid Retention & Swelling—How to Cope”

  1. Great advice here Britta..gosh is there no end to the troubles we go through during chemo?! Luckily I didn’t experience this particular symptom but it is good to have this information to hand for anyone who might experience it. Thanks for posting.

  2. Natalie says:

    Lymphedema can be both physically and emotionally trying. You provided some great resources–in addition I would recommend talking about it with other breast cancer patients who can also share their experiences, perhaps in a support group. I know the Cancer Support Community (CSC) offers daily support groups all over the country. If you’re interested, check out their website: thewellnesscommunity.org

    Hope this can help out a bit,
    Natalie

  3. josie williams says:

    I had a mastectomy in March began chemo in April and radiation in September.
    y main problem is swollen ankles and feet and now i have lost most of my finger nails, my Oncologist tells me it is because the radiation reactivates the chemo still in my system. Any suggestions as to how to reduce swelling would be much appreciated.

  4. Jin says:

    Thank you for the information.
    This helped alot thank you…

  5. colleen says:

    I went through chemo for breast cancer Jan.- April 2012, then radiation, which I finished in June 2012. I’ve gone through all kinds of different effects since June. I have put on 30 pounds and most of it is fluid build up mainly in my stomach and legs. A week ago I started feeling so weak, dosing off and finding it very hard to stay awake. My breathing started getting a little heavier and my knees started aching which is making it uncomfortable to walk, lots of fluid in my knees. I’m on tamoxifen, could that also be causing these effects.

  6. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Colleen. I feel for you. I gained weight through my cancer treatments, too, and it’s something I certainly didn’t expect! The fatigue sounds very familiar, too, but for you, it seems you have a storm of after-effects converging on you all at once. Some of it could definitely be related to the Tamoxifen—it has a reputation for having some very serious side effects. I’m not sure what’s causing the swelling, though, so check with your doctor on that.

    First of all, be patient and realize that these effects WILL pass eventually. Your body is trying to recover after going through battle, basically, and it will take time. Second, talk to your doctor about what’s happening. You may want to take a break from the tamoxifen for a bit to see if that will help, but be sure to get professional advice first.

    Next, I’d suggest you meet with a dietician or nutritionist and get yourself on a diet that will help your body recover and give you some more energy. Read more about my friend’s methods to combat fatigue after cancer treatments here: http://cincovidas.com/3-time-cancer-survivor-says-quality-supplements-beat-fatigue/

    Most importantly, don’t give up on yourself. The treatments may be over, but your recovery is not, so keep focusing on what you need to do to get well. My best to you!

  7. tracy says:

    i finished my chemo in december,got swelling to my knees and feet the hospital said it was a reaction to my injection that boosts my white cells how ever it has not gone away i find it hard to walk as i can only walk on my toes, now my GP has refered me to physio but still dont know why my legs are like this.

  8. Lesley says:

    Hi Britta,
    Thanks for your post. I’m the unfortunate poster child for chemo-induced-edema. I write a bit about this on my blog, although most of my narrative, rather than informational: http://cancertherevolution.com/
    I just finished 6 rounds of THC & even with Herceptin only, I continue to experience days in water-balloon mode. (I just gained 6lbs in 24 hours!)
    But thank you so much for your advice! I’ll add that a good quality green tea can help. (You can buy it decaf or decaf it yourself by adding a cup of water, then waiting a minute before pouring it out. Then you’re ready to steep caffeine-free.)
    Also, coconut water is an excellent and fairly low-calorie source of potassium. I also find restorative yoga helpful–especially the inversions, and if you can find a good massage therapist, lymphatic massage can offer some relief.

  9. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Lesley. Six pounds in 24 hours! You poor thing. You must feel like the marshmallow woman! Thanks for your recommendations—both sound great. I send my best wishes for your speedy recovery now that the treatments are over, sounds like? Be kind to yourself and patient—the adjustment back can be difficult.

  10. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Tracy. That sounds very frustrating, though it is not uncommon to have swelling after chemo. I would definitely try another doctor if you’re not getting the answers you need. Then you may want to talk to a dietician or naturopath, as there may be dietary changes you can make that would help your body get rid of the extra water. I’d also refer you to Leslie’s comment on this post and her recommendations. Bottom line—you don’t have to live with this forever. It may take some trial and error, but I’m sure there is something that will help you to feel better. Don’t give up!

  11. Suzen says:

    My husband is going through chemo and have excessive edema especially on his feet and legs where liquid is seeping out. Has anyone had this problem? We’ve tried water pills, low salt diet, constant elevation but nothing seems to work. Any suggestions?

  12. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Suzen. What a challenging problem. Have you spoken to your doctor about this? If this continues to get worse, the doctor may need to adjust the chemo medications. I would also suggest potentially talking to a naturopath or holistic doctor to find more possible solutions. Have you tried compression socks that help push the fluid back up? You can get these at medical supply stores. You may also want to check with a vascular doctor to be sure that none of your husband’s veins in the legs are damaged. This may be a good idea anyway as he may have other suggestions to help. You may also look into gentle massage to help rebalance fluids—just be sure to find a practitioner that is experienced in working with cancer patients.

    Bottom line—don’t give up! Keep trying to find solutions as they are out there, and the more you can reduce side effects, the more likely you are to be able to heal from the cancer. Good luck!

  13. cathy cook says:

    I finished chemo and lots of it in February, and am starting to gain weight like crazy…4 lbs. in 3 days of almost starving myself to get back into my pants…I am at a loss as to what to do…ugh

  14. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Cathy. Congratulations on finishing your chemo! That has to feel good, right? I hear you on your weight struggles, though. It could be coming from so many things. Your body may be craving nutrition right now, or you may be eating emotionally to recover from all the stress. Either way, I would get yourself to a naturopath or dietician right away if you can—or get ahold of some good books and get yourself into some healthy cooking and healthy exercise. I gained weight through my chemotherapy treatments, but I took the wrong approach by restricting food. Try instead to focus solely on your health—on choosing healthy options (no junk!) and on exercising daily, even if it’s just a 30-minute walk. Focusing on healthy choices rather than weight control helped me to turn the corner—I hope it helps you. If you’re struggling with emotional issues (and who isn’t after surviving cancer?), think about talking to a counselor, getting into a support group, or getting into an online forum where you can share your struggles with those who understand. This may also take away the urge to eat too much. Good luck!

  15. Cindy says:

    I started A/C in Nov/Dec of 2012 for breast cancer, then T/H from January until just last week but still have Herceptin every 3 weeks until the end of the year (with 1 today) and 6 weeks of radiation still to go. I am experiencing very painful neuropathy and edema in my hands and feet with a weight gain of at least 18 pounds so far (I lost my ankle bones today). My feet and fingers are in constant pain. It is painful to walk, very few shoes or clothing fit, and now I am truly afraid of having to have my rings cut off. But like everything else this too shall pass. It does not stop me from working on a quilt that is a wedding gift or embroidering on pillow cases when receiving my infusion. It is nice to know I am not alone in this particular battle. Life is what we make of it girls (and guys). Look for your any health options to help you cope. Be thankful for the blessings we do have, such as others on this website to help us through the difficult times. Thank you for taking the time to read my post.

  16. Britta Aragon says:

    Cindy, you have such a positive and enduring spirit. Thank you so much for your uplifting comment. My heart goes out to you with the pain that you’re going through. Have you tried extra vitamin B for the nerves? Have you told your doctor? Sometimes the body needs a break, so do let the physicians know if it gets to be too much, will you? I gained weight too during my chemotherapy, so I know some of how you feel. You’re right that it will pass, but the nerve damage is something that’s a little more serious. Please do ask your doctor and watch out for yourself. All my best.

  17. amber says:

    I had osteosarcoma 3 years ago and had major sweeling. Now, most of it is gone but there is still obviously some in my hands, feet/ankles and face. So frustrating!

  18. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Amber. Thanks for writing in. I’m sure it is frustrating to have a side effect like that hang on for so long. At least through your sharing your experience you let others know that these experiences are normal. Keep fighting and I hope you keep feeling better.

  19. Rashelle says:

    Thank you all for sharing all this information. I wish my mum can read this, she is experiencing the same swelling and breathing difficulties. Was told to see a Cardiologist do some tests before going for the next chemo this Friday. She is in her 2nd last cycle.

  20. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Rashelle. I’m sorry to hear about your mom. I’m glad the doctors are checking her to be sure she is strong enough for chemotherapy. Meanwhile, might she take your recommendations if you suggest some of the solutions listed in this post? Either way, I’m sure your support means the world to her. Wishing you strength as your family faces this together.

  21. Mickey says:

    My husband has MDS/MPN is having chemo treatments, his ankles are so swollen it’s hard for him to walk or even wer joes. s this a side effect of the chemo treatment decitibane?

  22. Kelly says:

    Hi, I just finished chemo 2weeks ago and now on herceptine every 3 weeks. I too am putting on weight and fluid retention everywhere. It’s very annoying and painful. My doctor has put me on water pills but not helping. I’m relieved its not a kidney problem. I have no solutions but happy to read these posts from all you soilders and know that this is fairly normal. I too have changed my diet and am eating lots of fruits and veggies. I actually bought a health master blender (my fave appliance) and I juice twice a day. Just wondering if anyone has a time frame for when this goes away? Also, I am starting tamoxifen soon, will I continue to have this weight problem.
    Thanks, kelly

  23. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Mickey. From my research, swelling and tenderness anywhere on the body is a potential side effect of decitibane. (http://www.drugs.com/sfx/decitabine-side-effects.html ) In fact, nearly a third of patients have edema in the lower limbs. I would suggest that your husband do everything he can to relieve the symptom, including putting his feet up, wearing compression stockings, cutting back on salt, and eating more potassium-rich foods. If the problem doesn’t go away, check with your doctor about other options. Good luck and remember—your husband doesn’t have to suffer. Being proactive about dealing with side effects can help him better heal from the cancer.

  24. sakshi says:

    hi !
    my dad has just undergone chemotherapy second time(oesophageal cancer) and he is having several problems in coping up with it.. swelling of right foot is one of them and coughing thick saliva and also frequent hiccups … he is also finding difficulty in standing on his own and seek for someone’s support every now and then and has become very pale and weak.. i would like you to please suggest some useful dietary supplements as well .

  25. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Saskshi.

    I’m very sorry to hear about your dad’s struggles with esophageal cancer. I’m not a doctor so I can’t necessarily determine what may be causing all of his symptoms and side effects, but I would suggest you have his vitamin B levels checked as they may be low. (A simple blood test will tell you.) Low vitamin B can contribute to balance problems, and elderly people, even when they don’t have cancer, can have trouble absorbing vitamin B. I would also suggest taking him to a dietician, who can help him eat foods that are good for him but that are also tasty and easy to digest. Juicing may be a good idea if he’s having trouble eating solid foods. He needs antioxidants, so I would recommend those, but food is the best source, rather than supplements. Try finding some juice recipes online that include lots of fruits and veggies–these all have lots of antioxidants, which can help his body cope with the chemo. I interviewed another survivor who has some great suggestions on supplements, as well. (See: http://cincovidas.com/3-time-cancer-survivor-says-quality-supplements-beat-fatigue/)

    Best of luck to you and hang in there. Make sure you’re caring for yourself as well!

  26. Beverly says:

    I understand the doctor can put drains in to get rid of the fluid. Ask your Doctor about this.

  27. Britta Aragon says:

    You’re right, Beverly. Thanks for the input.


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