Two Surgical Treatments for Lymphedema

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide
  • So many sad stories can make hanging around in the cancer community
downright depressing some days.  Even the stories of triumphant survival
include permanent loss.  The surgery and drugs that save lives often leave
side effects like lymphedema or neuropathy.


    This week eleven years ago, I had a biopsy for
a type of cancer I'd never heard of called inflammatory breast cancer.  I
joined the cancer community that day, and I've never left.  I'm still
hanging out with cancer survivors both in person and on my computer.


    One of the joys that keeps me going is the constant stream of good news from
the medical community.  Recently two bits of good news about using surgery
to treat lymphedema cheered me up.  I've been struggling with lymphedema for
about nine years now.  I've been lucky; most of the time I can keep it under
control.  This winter though it's been worse than usual, so I was glad to read about these new techniques.

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    M. D. Anderson recently reported good results from a study evaluating a procedure called lymphaticovenular bypass.  Surgeons redirect the lymph fluid by connecting the tiny lymph vessels in the arm.  Dr. David W. Chang, the lead author in the study says, "Lymphedema is like a massive traffic jam with no exit.  This procedure does a lot to help relieve lymphedema by giving the fluid a way out. While it does not totally eliminate the condition, there is very little downside for the patient and we may see significant improvement in its severity."


    Nineteen out of 20 patients with Stage II and III lymphedema in the study reported significant improvement.  The patients’ affected arms were an average of 34% larger than their non-lymphedema arm.  By the end of 12 months they achieved mean average reduction of 25 percent.


    The M. D. Anderson website acknowledges that Medicare does not cover this procedure.  One of my e-mail friends has learned that insurance companies sometimes turn down patients saying that the procedure is experimental, but if she decides to try the surgery, she plans to point out to them all the money they are spending on her therapy already.


    Another procedure I recently learned about is called a lymph node transplant.  Lymph node transplants have been done in France for a long time, but they are still fairly new in the United States.  A healthy lymph node from another part of the body is transplanted to the area with the lymphedema.


    A study by Dr. Corinne Becker, the French pioneer in this procedure found that 10 of 24 patients were cured of their lymphedema, 12 showed improvement, and 2 were not helped at all.  The Detroit Free Press reporting on lymph node transplants in the United States says the procedure helps one in four women.


    As I read the details of these surgical interventions for lymphedema, I found that they seem most appropriate for people who have major problems with their lymphedema and that they don’t work for everyone.  You are more likely to see an improvement than a complete cure.


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    However, if you have significant lymphedema that has not responded to bandaging and massage, you might want to look into both of these procedures and see if either might be advisable for you.


Published On: April 10, 2009