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New treatment gives hope to breast cancer patients with lymphedema

lymphodema

It’s a life-threatening side effect of breast cancer but experts say there is a new way to tackle “lymphedema.”

Lymph nodes throughout our body help collect and filter infections and abnormal cells out of the body.

However, lymph nodes are often removed during breast cancer treatments, which can lead to painful swelling in the arms.

Marcia Pearson was 49 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Pearson said, “Had a lumpectomy, that was in 1997. In 2001, I started to get in my left arm a little bit of pain.”

It quickly progressed throughout her upper body.

She said, “I got up one morning and my arm was just all swelled up. I had a great big bag under the arm.”

She was diagnosed with an infection and it turned out to be related to an earlier breast cancer surgery.

Pearson said, “I didn’t even know about lymphedema.”

Dr. Rebecca Studinger said, “Had patients that can’t put their hand behind their back, can’t put it above their head because it’s too heavy or too bulky.”

Pearson said, “It started to get progressively worse. My problem with lymphedema was infection.”

The infections can be quite severe, even life-threatening.

Pearson said, “I had a lymphatic press pump that I have to carry.”

The pump squeezes fluid out of the arm but it is not always effective in severe cases.

She said, “I was starting to get scared that there wasn’t anything out there for me, no hope, and it was a very depressing time.”

Then she discovered a surgical procedure pioneered and refined in France.

Dr. Studinger said, “A lymph node transfer is when you take lymph nodes from one area of the body and move them to the area that’s not draining well.”

She said, “It’s over 90 percent of the time that people have a good result with this, where either they will see a reduction in the size of their arm or their leg or the infection rate going down.”

The results aren’t immediate and it can take months for the swelling to subside.

Most insurance companies don’t want to pay for it and doctors are hoping that will change as the procedure becomes more widespread and accepted.