The Physiotherapy and Lymphedema Department at the National Centre for Cancer Care and Research (NCCCR) recently held an event for patients and members of the public to raise awareness about lymphedema and the importance of early treatment.

Illustration of a person with leg lymphedema (Mayo Clinic)

Lymphedema is a condition characterised by localised fluid retention and tissue swelling and is caused by a compromised lymphatic system. It can affect the face, neck, abdomen, and other parts of the body. The condition can be primary or secondary, with primary lymphedema caused by the abnormal development of the lymph system and secondary being the result of damage to the lymph system. The condition is a common side effect of some cancer treatments, including surgery and radiation therapy.

Mohammed Shafi, Head of the Physiotherapy and Lymphedema Department at NCCCR and a Certified Lymphedema Therapist said that they are the only provider of lymphedema treatment in Qatar.

Lymphedema is swelling that can occur in any part of the body but is commonly seen in the arms and legs. While it can be hereditary, it is often caused by the removal of lymph nodes, trauma, abdominal surgeries, or cancer, and specifically, exposure to radiation therapy as part of cancer treatments.’

Shafi explained that protein molecules can accumulate beneath the skin and draw fluid into the affected area. He said that removal of, or damage to the lymph nodes and vessels cause retention of lymph fluid. If the remaining lymph vessels cannot remove enough of the fluid in the affected area, fluid builds up and causes swelling, or lymphedema.

Last year, 341 patients received treatment at NCCCR for lymphedema. The Physiotherapy and Lymphedema Department opened in 2013 and cares for patients transferred from across the network of hospitals under Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC), as well as from primary health care centres and other healthcare providers in Qatar. Events like the one held at NCCCR are important because they help raise awareness among medical professionals and members of the public, including those who may be suffering in silence.

Our efforts have been effective as demonstrated by the increase in the number of patients we see. In 2017 we treated 341 cases (305 women and 36 men), an increase of 76% from the previous year. Increased awareness of our service also meant that we treated a number of patients who might have otherwise travelled abroad for care.’

Shafi added that women are more likely to develop lymphedema due to the types of cancers that are most commonly associated with the condition. Emad Basher, a physiotherapist at NCCCR, warns of the dangers of neglecting treatment. Infections from the swelling caused by lymphedema are life threatening and while incurable, can be managed, according to him.

Symptoms of lymphedema include a full or heavy sensation in the limb(s), tightness of the skin or tissue, decreased flexibility in the hand, wrist, foot, ankle, and swelling. It is important to watch for subtle signs to ensure treatment is started as early as possible.

Treatment plans are customised for each patient and generally include lymph drainage, which is a form of massage that stimulates the lymph vessels, compression bandages and garments, exercise, and skin care. Patient education and nutrition counseling are also an important part of the treatment plan.

To learn more about NCCCR and their Physiotherapy and Lymphedema Department, visit the HMC website at