Of the many, many health topics that are discussed, lymphedema does not register high on the list. This is true even within the medical community. Without many conversations to be found, patients may have a difficult time understanding the symptoms they experience. Unfortunately, lymphedema isn’t well-understood by most doctors, either. Here at our offices at Keck Medicine, patients may discover facts and figures that they would not find elsewhere. This is because Dr. Ketan Patel is a specialist who spends a great deal of time working with patients who have this condition. Here, we take a look at a few questions that patients often have as they journey toward better health.
What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a chronic condition affecting the lymphatic system. This is the system in the body that is involved in transporting fluids to and from various tissues and organs. Its role in fluid transportation coincides with actions in the immune system that mobilize disease-fighting white blood cells when a threat is detected. The lymphatic system also picks up waste and toxins that the body will flush to maintain homeostasis. To transport fluids and filter the blood, the lymphatic system relies on a series of vessels, nodes, and tissues. If any of these are impaired, the function of the lymphatic system as a whole can diminish and severe swelling may occur in a limb. The result is lymphedema. Lymphedema may be primary, meaning is it inherited. Most often, it is secondary, resultant of infection, trauma, or treatment that has affected or removed one or more lymph nodes.
Why Wasn’t I Told About the Risk of Lymphedema During my Lymph Node Treatment?
We sometimes hear the frustrating stories of patients who underwent lymph node removal with no discussion of lymphedema risks. This is such an unfortunate occurrence and it only goes back to the lack of education that is available in this area. While initiatives have expanded around the world, it remains important for every patient to do their homework to learn everything they can about proposed treatments and procedures, and to bring their questions from what they have learned to their doctor. As much as patients expect their doctors to have all relevant information, issues that are not as prevalent sometimes aren’t well-studied.
Lymphedema and Lymph Node Dissection for Breast Cancer
Patients who receive breast cancer treatment that involves any targeting of a lymph node may be at risk of lymphedema. Fortunately, advances in technology and surgical techniques have decreased this risk, even for patients who undergo lymph node dissection. Historically, the risk was about 50 percent. Today, it ranges from 15 to 25% across the patient’s lifetime. In cases of sentinel node surgery without radiation, the risk of lymphedema is only about 6 percent.
How does Surgery Affect the Lymphatic System?
The body relies on the entire lymphatic system and its series of nodes to efficiently remove toxins and waste and to move fluid through organs and tissues. If any lymph node is removed or disrupted, the flow of lymph fluid may be interrupted. Fluid may build up or blockages may occur more easily than they would in an intact, functioning lymphatic system. The risk of lymphedema seems to relate to the number of lymph nodes that are treated or removed.
Dr. Patel has spent years educating himself about lymphedema and how to treat it. His microsurgical techniques have helped many patients regain comfort and confidence. To schedule a consultation in our Glendale or Los Angeles location, contact us at 323-442-0416.