Fending off Lymphedema Through Early Intervention

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Jill Chadwick

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         A study conducted by researchers at The University of Kansas Cancer Center has found that early, ongoing screening of lymphatic function and immediate patient-administered therapies are highly effective in improving outcomes for women at high risk for breast cancer related lymphedema.

Lymphedema is a condition that can happen when breast cancer surgery includes removal of lymph nodes, or through other breast cancer treatment like radiation or chemotherapy. It is often diagnosed in later stages, when the condition cannot be reversed. Lymphedema’s chronic swelling may lead to pain, decreased arm range of motion and potentially infection, significantly lowering a woman’s quality of life. 

 “This study shows that early intervention is crucial in addressing lymphatic changes before they reach clinically apparent levels that are likely to become permanent,” says Lyndsey Kilgore, MD, researcher at The University of Kansas Cancer Center.

In the study, nearly 150 participants considered at high risk for lymphedema had baseline readings taken before surgery or therapy, as well as periodic measurements for at least one year after surgery. All patients who developed lymphedema had resolution of their symptoms after initiation of treatment, which included compression sleeve garments and self-massage. Overall, only 6 percent of patients in the study developed clinically persistent lymphedema.  Historically, lymphedema rates for similarly treated patients range from 20 to 40 percent. 

The University of Kansas Cancer Center is the only facility in the area, and one of a few in the country, with a comprehensive lymphedema program focused not only on lymphedema treatment, but also on surveillance and prevention. Every breast cancer patient sees a lymphedema clinician for education, measurements and prospective monitoring.           

            Sabrina Korentager, RN, clinical nurse coordinator for the Lymphedema Prevention Clinic at The University of Kansas Cancer Center at Indian Creek, does a baseline for cancer patients using a machine call “LDex”. LDex works like an EKG … measuring the lymphatic flow in a patient. She tells patients to think of how a sponge absorbs water.  “The sponge doesn’t change shape until it’s full of water,” Korentager explained. “LDex helps us get a baseline so we can detect fluid changes in the arm before the swelling happens and then women can learn to manage their condition better.” 

            In the video, Korentager, who participated in the research on the effects of early detection of lymphedema, talks about LDex and how it works. The video also shows patients undergoing the testing.

            Also in the video, Mila Ellsworth, an area breast cancer survivor, who was chosen by the Kansas City Royals to participate in the honorary Bat Girl program. She explains how she developed lymphedema after breast cancer surgery and how she handles it. Also, Ben Aiken of the Kansas City Royals explains how the program works and how Mila was chosen for the honor.