Fox Chase Cancer Center's Lymph node transfer procedure can help eliminate lymphedema pain

"We're not curing the lymphedema... We try to improve some of the symptoms that they have."
Lymphedema can be a terrible side effect of cancer.

The constant swelling of an arm or leg can not only be incredibly painful but it can also inhibit many activities.

In this week's Moves in Medicine, we talk to a pair of doctors who have a procedure that can provide immediate relief.

56-year-old Tonya Miller suffered from the condition for years, before a seminar changed her life for the better.

Miller is a breast cancer survivor, but after her mastectomy, she developed lymphedema in her arm.

"I couldn't do anything," she said. "I cried every day."

Lymphedema is a chronic progressive disease that causes swelling in the body. It's caused by damage to the lymphatic system during surgery and radiation.

"They develop a significant amount of scar tissue that basically blocks the lymphatic fluid from draining through what we call lymphatic channels," explained Dr. M. Shuja Shafqat, Assistant Professor of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and Director of the Microvascular Surgery Fellowship.

Traditional treatment for lymphedema is the use of compression garments, massage and exercise. But the team at Fox Chase Cancer Center has a fairly new surgical option, called vascularized lymph node transfer.

"It is essentially transplanting lymph nodes from one part of the body to another part of the body. Namely to the extremity or to the area that's been affected by lymphedema," said Dr. Sameer Patel, Chief of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

An option that once Miller heard about it, she wasted no time.

"I called them the very next day and I said I want I want that surgery," she said.

For Miller her results were immediate.

"It's been wonderful," she said. "I really felt like a new person."

"We're not curing the lymphedema. What we want to do is to try to improve some of the symptoms that they have," said Dr. Patel.

And like with most illnesses early intervention is key.

"When the lymphedema goes on for a period of time those tissues become irreversibly damaged," said Dr. Shafquat.

Other cancer patients can also develop lymphedema, those with melanoma, urological cancer and gynecological cancers are also at risk.
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