Breast lymphedema possible?


Question from Amy: Does lymphedema only occur in the arm or can it be in the breast as well?
Answers - Nicole Stout Absolutely! Not only can it be in the breast as well, it can be exclusively in the breast and chest wall, even if it does not appear in the arm. So we need to recognize that breast edema and chest wall edema exist and should be treated.
Jennifer Sabol, M.D., F.A.C.S. As a surgeon, I probably see it more acutely than most and have a more difficult time getting other physicians to acknowledge that there is such an entity as lymphedema of the breast which is actually quite uncomfortable for some patients as well as alarming, because it is difficult to ask for treatment for swollen breasts. I think maybe you can comment on how you manage patients like this.
Nicole Stout I would say, first of all, recognition is part of the key. I believe anecdotally that I am seeing more frequency of breast and chest wall swelling – lymphedema, if you will – now with the sentinel node biopsy, as we are removing the direct drainage pathway out of the breast. Unfortunately, it is going far underrecognized. Treatment for breast and chest wall lymphedema is analogous to the way we would treat the arm, meaning that the patients would require lymphatic drainage, compression, therapy, exercise, and skin care. Many of these patients will require custom fit or near-custom compression bras.
Kathryn Schmitz I would say this is an international problem. I was at the Australasian Lymphology Association meeting in Perth in March, and this issue of seeing more breast edema was a theme there. It seems to me that the compression garments and treatments available are not as advanced as they are for arm edema, the compression garments in particular.
Nicole Stout I would agree with that to an extent. I think there are excellent compression bras that exist. I agree with you that we are as not highly evolved in this area in recognition, treatment, and management as we are with the arms.
Jennifer Sabol, M.D., F.A.C.S. I would add one note of hope, and it is sort of anecdotal. I think this is one of the few times that lymphedema does have a tendency to regress. It's probably due to the acute injury of the radiation therapy. Breast edema does tend to go down over time, though it may not disappear. It is a very slow resolution of the edema and it's almost never complete. I generally tell patients to expect a very slow, ongoing improvement, even over 2 to 3 years after their radiation therapy, until they reach a stable plateau. I'd be curious if you two have found the same sort of better overall prognosis for the breast edema.
Nicole Stout I would add one note of hope, and it is sort of anecdotal. I think this is one of the few times that lymphedema does have a tendency to regress. It's probably due to the acute injury of the radiation therapy. Breast edema does tend to go down over time, though it may not disappear. It is a very slow resolution of the edema and it's almost never complete. I generally tell patients to expect a very slow, ongoing improvement, even over 2 to 3 years after their radiation therapy, until they reach a stable plateau. I'd be curious if you two have found the same sort of better overall prognosis for the breast edema.

On Wednesday, April 16, 2008, our Ask-the-Expert Online Conference was called Preventing and Treating Arm Lymphedema. Kathryn Schmitz, Ph.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S.M.,Nicole Stout, M.P.T. C.L.T.-L.A.N.A., and moderator Jennifer Sabol, M.D., F.A.S.C. answered your questions about ways to prevent and manage lymphedema.

The materials presented in these conferences do not necessarily reflect the views of Breastcancer.org. A qualified healthcare professional should be consulted before using any therapeutic product or regimen discussed. All readers should verify all information and data before employing any therapies described here.

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