Can lymphedema be prevented following breast cancer surgery?

Research led by Mei Fu, associate professor of Chronic Disease Management at New York College of Nursing, offers support for a preventive approach to lymphedema following breast cancer treatment. 140 women who were followed for 12 months were included in the study and outcomes included limb volume measurement from baseline (prior to surgery 2-4 weeks post-surgery, and at 6 and 12 months. Lymphedema was defined in the study as a 10% or greater increase in limb volume. 134 women completed the study, with 97% maintaining limb volume.

Of the subjects studied, axillary lymph node dissection was completed in almost 60%, and approximately 40% had sentinel lymph node biopsy. The self-care strategies in the research included shoulder mobility exercises, muscle-tightening deep breathing, muscle-tightening pumping exercises, and large muscle group exercise such as walking, swimming, yoga) to promote lymph health. The participants were also instructed in nutritional information aimed toward maintaining body mass index (BMI.) 97% of the women were also able to maintain BMI at the 12 month follow-up.

The majority of women in this pilot study also reported that the educational program helped in understanding of risk reduction for lymphedema, and also reduced their fear and anxiety about the condition. This type of research is very encouraging towards empowering patients following breast cancer. The authors note that a larger study population in a randomized, controlled trial will offer further information to guide clinical program development. While this study focused on participants with a diagnosis of breast cancer, is it likely that similar lifestyle and activity education would offer prevention of abdominopelvic and lower extremity lymphedema?

Within the Institute's Oncology series, you can learn more about these topics at several continuing education courses. To learn more about lymphedema, check out the Rehab for the Breast Oncology Patient, or the Oncology and the Pelvic Floor Courses (divided into male and female topics.) The next opportunity to take the Oncology for the Pelvic Floor Female: Reproductive and Gynecologic Cancers is June 21-22 in Florida. There a few seats left, so sign up soon!

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