One in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and the removal of lymph nodes (lymph node biopsy or dissection) is a necessary procedure to help doctors figure out the best treatment plan. However, the removal of lymph nodes can have side effects such as lymphedema.
What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a swelling that can occur in a patient’s hand, arm, chest wall, or trunk on the side that lymph nodes were removed ie after surgery for breast cancer. We do not yet have a cure for clinical lymphedema but know that early education and treatment can minimize risk and improve treatment when swelling does occur.
Traditionally, major risk factors for lymphedema include being overweight and or obese at the time of diagnosis, a greater number of lymph nodes removed, number of lymph nodes that have cancer, having radiation treatment, and having an infection after surgery (among others).
A new research study was recently released in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, and Physics that highlighted the incidence of lymphedema and pointed out risk factors for lymphedema for the women in this particular trial. They looked at 3 groups of women (>100 women in each group) that received radiation for breast cancer after surgery that involved an axillary lymph node dissection, and divided them into radiation treatment types.
In short, the group that had radiation to more of their axilla, where the lymph node groups are, had the highest lymphedema risk (36% at 5 years after treatment). The group that had the least exposure from radiation to the axillary lymph nodes had the lowest risk of lymphedema (7% at 5 years after treatment).
Radiation is a necessary part of breast cancer treatment, but women receiving radiation, especially after axillary lymph node dissection, should be referred to a Certified Lymphedema Therapist for education and proactive treatment.