CLEVELAND – October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And for some survivors, they may experience lymphedema, a condition that causes painful swelling of their arm or hand after undergoing surgery or radiation.
“Lymphedema can really cause discomfort and can cause loss of function. Women can have trouble lifting their arm or using their hand,” said Chirag Shah, MD, director of breast radiation oncology for Cleveland Clinic. “It can lead to secondary infections of the arm called lymphangitis and really have a significant impact, psychosocial impact and quality of life impact.”
Previously, women were often diagnosed using a tape measure. However, Dr. Shah’s recent research shows a device which uses low-level electrical currents is much more effective.
He said it does a better job with early detection, making the condition easier to treat.
When it comes to treatment, it varies based on the severity. In some cases, a woman may be given a compression garment to wear to help with swelling.
Physical therapy and surgery may also be necessary.
“I think it depends typically on when we catch lymphedema, so if we catch lymphedema later in the process, it’s often felt to be irreversible if there is a significant volume increase and a lot of chronic changes have set in,” he said. “But, if it is caught early there is data, including data from the PREVENT trial, showing that women are not progressing to chronic lymphedema and they’re actually having that resolved.”
Dr. Shah said his take home message for those who underwent treatment for breast cancer is to be proactive about their risk for lymphedema and to talk to their physician about any concerns.