Researchers Pinpoint Five Ways to Minimize Lymphedema Impacts in Breast Cancer Patients

Cancer, and its treatment, can come with multiple unpleasant side effects. Lymphedema is among the more common ones. Lymphedema occurs when lymph fluid builds up in the body and causes swelling, due to damage to or removal of lymph nodes. It most often occurs in the arms and legs. There isn’t a cure, but there may be some strategies that help lower the risk. A new study looked into some of the better recommendations.

A research team from Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong, Flinders University in Australia, and the University of Toronto recently gathered the opinions of more than 50 experts in breast cancer care, research, and lymphedema for a study published in The Lancet’s eClinicalMedicine. Their research also included data from more than 60,000 patients with breast cancer-related arm lymphedema. The goal was to pinpoint strategies that may help prevent more patients from having to deal with this difficult side effect.

Woman raises arm and touches armpit

Raymond Chan, co-senior author and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research at Flinders University, says, “This is the first study in the world to provide recommendations on the frequency and duration of surveillance, methods to detect early lymphoedema, thresholds for early intervention and types of treatments to offer depending on the degree of the condition. With this knowledge, these interventions can now be applied with confidence in clinical settings.”

Among the recommendations lined out in the study was the creation of surveillance programs to screen for lymphedema and reduce its risk. Patients that may be at higher risk include those who had undergone axillary (or armpit area) lymph node dissection, those treated with post-surgery radiation, those with an increased arm volume a month after surgery, those who had a higher number of lymph nodes dissected, and those with a higher body mass index.

For such patients, the study found a few possible preventive steps to take. Those include the use of compression sleeves, axillary reverse mapping, and lymphatic reconstruction. The study also suggested that axillary lymph node dissection could be omitted in patients who get lumpectomies, while it could be replaced with axillary radiation for mastectomy patients.

Woman lifts arm and shows her underarm

The team says their findings show lymphedema could be better tackled with an individualized approach that takes into account patients’ preferences, lymphedema risk factors, available treatment options, and the expertise of their health care team.

Dr. Adrian Wai Chan, co-first author and clinical research fellow in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, says, “Our study sheds light on the best practices in the management of [breast cancer-related arm lymphedema] and offers hope and empowerment to breast cancer survivors who may be devastated by their lymphedema.”

You can read more on their recommendations here.

Woman with lymphedema wears compression socks
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