Breakthrough treatment reduces lymphedema

October 31, 2011 2:51:27 PM PDT
Doctors say cure rates are getting better for breast cancer but many women are getting left with unwanted, sometimes devastating side effects. New techniques are making a big difference in the lives of survivors.

When Katie Brophy learned she had breast cancer, she wasn't surprised.

"I sort of expected it, obviously when you have a lump, you just assume, Brophy said."

A lumpectomy and radiation took care of her cancer but left her with the risk of lymphedema , a side effect of treatment that causes fluid build-up in the limbs. As an interior designer, that worried her.

"I'm physical. I paint walls. I wallpaper, refinish wood," she said. "The last thing you need to do is have an impaired arm."

Mayo Clinic Dr. Andrea Cheville said radiation may destroy arm-draining lymph nodes.

Once they're damaged, the risk of lympedema rises. So does the risk of infection.

"It's unattractive and so I think socially it's a very difficult condition for people," Cheville said. "Our best hope is to prevent people from getting it."

To do that, she's testing a new technique that combines CT scans with spect imaging. That powerful combo pinpoints exact locations of critical lymph nodes.

"The physicians who are planning a woman's radiation can know exactly where those critical nodes are and avoid them, block them from the radiation field," Cheville said.

Studies show it reduces the number of critical lymph nodes that receive harmful radiation by more than 55 percent.

"We treated 30 women," she said. "None of those women have developed lymphedema."

Cheville said one big advantage of this new approach is many medical centers already have both of these imaging technologies.

Training physicians to fuse the two techniques for this purpose may be all that's needed to help women reduce their risk of lymphedema.

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