Recent research indicates that the pathophysiology of breast-cancer-related lymphoedema (BCRL) is more complex than simple axillary lymphatic obstruction as a result of the cancer treatment. Uneven distribution of swelling (involvement of the mid-arm region is common, but the hand is often spared) is puzzling. Our aim was to test the hypothesis that local differences in lymphatic drainage contribute to the regionality of the oedema. Using lymphoscintigraphy, we measured the removal rate constant, k (representing local lymph flow per unit distribution volume, VD), for 99mTc-labelled human immunoglobulin G in the oedematous proximal forearm, and in the hand (finger web) in women in whom the hand was unaffected. Tracer was injected subcutaneously, and the depot plus the rest of the arm was monitored with a gamma-radiation camera for up to 6 h. VD was assessed from image width. Contralateral arms served as controls. k was 25% lower in oedematous forearm tissue than in the control arm (BCRL, -0.070+/-0.026% x min(-1); control, -0.093+/-0.028% x min(-1); mean+/-S.D.; P=0.012) and VD was greater. In the non-oedematous hand of the BCRL arm, k was 18% higher than in the control hand (BCRL, -0.110+/-0.027% x min(-1); control, -0.095+/-0.028% x min(-1); P=0.057) and 59% higher than forearm k on the BCRL side (P=0.0014). VD did not differ between the hands. Images of the BCRL arm following hand injection showed diffuse activity in the superficial tissues, sometimes extending almost to the shoulder. A possible interpretation is that the hand is spared in some patients because local lymph flow is increased and diverted along collateral dermal routes. The results support the hypothesis that regional differences in surviving lymphatic function contribute to the distribution of swelling.