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Surgical Treatment of Lymphedema Following Cancer Therapy

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema frequently occurs as a complication of cancer treatments that include surgery, lymph node removal and radiation therapy. Up to 30 percent of women treated for breast cancer with these therapies are affected by lymphedema. Those with gynecologic malignancies, melanoma and sarcoma may develop this condition as well.

What are the symptoms of lymphedema?

Early stages of lymphedema manifest as mild to moderate swelling of the arm or leg. Progression of lymphedema may result in recurrent infection, permanent swelling of the limb, chronic pain, skin changes, reduced function and disfigurement.

What treatment options are available?

While there is currently no cure for lymphedema, early stages may be managed with specialized physical and occupational therapy in conjunction with compression wrapping and garments. These treatments may help to prevent progression, however, symptoms may worsen or become unresponsive to standard therapies.

Vascularized lymph node transfer is a technique that relieves the symptoms of lymphedema by transferring healthy lymphatic tissue from a distant donor area to a site at the affected extremity. First, scar tissue is removed from the lymphedematous arm or leg, then healthy lymphatic tissue is transplanted into the area using microsurgical techniques to reconnect the artery and veins to restore blood flow to the transplanted lymph nodes. This new tissue helps drain lymphatic fluid, stimulate new lymphatic growth and reduce infection.

While this procedure is not a cure for lymphedema, it may significantly reduce swelling and deformity and ultimately reduce or eliminate the need for lifelong compression therapy.

Who is a candidate?

Ideal candidates are those who are considered cancer free and have mild to moderate lymphedema that has not responded to standard lymphedema treatments such as complex decongestive therapy and compression. In some cases related to breast cancer, microsurgical breast reconstruction (DIEP flap) may be combined with this technique.

Why Choose Us?

At Cleveland Clinic, our Reconstructive Plastic Surgeons work closely with lymphedema specialists preoperatively and following the surgery to maximize the positive effects of the surgery.

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Call us for an Appointment

To schedule an appointment with a dermatologist or plastic surgeon, contact the Dermatology & Plastic Surgery Institute at 216.444.5725 (or toll-free 1.800.223.2273, ext. 45725).

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To arrange a same-day visit, call 216.444.7000

This information is provided by Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition.

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