Women who have had the lymph nodes under their arm surgically removed during breast cancer treatment are warned to avoid certain practices that can cause lymphedema-a condition that causes chronic, painless swelling in the arm. Now, a new study published in the March issue of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons suggests that the vast majority of women who undergo breast cancer operations worry about developing this complication and that this fear far exceeds their actual risk of getting lymphedema. In fact, most women adopt four to five commonly recommended measures to prevent this incurable condition despite little data supporting the efficacy of these precautionary behaviors.
During breast cancer treatment, women are advised to take certain preventive steps to reduce their chance of developing lymphedema. These preventive measures include vigilant skin care to avoid injury (avoidance of needle punctures or blood draws), not getting one's blood pressure taken in the affected arm, frequent use of compression garments, and various other practices. The truth is that clinicians don't really know if any of these precautionary measures change the outcomes for these women.
"Clinicians don't really know what causes lymphedema, and there is an overall lack of data supporting or refuting these risk-reducing practices," said lead study author Sarah McLaughlin, MD, FACS, assistant professor of surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL. "And because women worry about that disfiguring process, they adopt practices that are basically grounded in myth, not fact."
About 90 percent of women who will develop lymphedema do so within three years of breast cancer treatment. It occurs in about 20 percent of women who undergo axillary lymph node dissection (ALND)-a procedure in which 10 lymph nodes (on average) in the armpit are removed and checked for cancer cells. It also develops in about 5 percent of women who undergo sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB)-a less extensive procedure in which only a few lymph nodes closest to the breast are taken out and analyzed.
To document the lymphedema rate, patient worry, and risk-reduction behaviors in women undergoing breast cancer surgery, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Florida followed 120 women, ages 52-68, for 12 months. Of those women, 53 underwent ALND and 67 had SLNB. The same two clinicians saw all patients postoperatively at one-, six-, and 12-month intervals. During these visits, the women completed questionnaires about their lymphedema risk-reduction behaviors, and assessments of their fear and worry about developing the condition.