Many breast cancer patients experience longterm arm and hand swelling after treatment

October 29, 2017

More than 55 percent of 580 breast cancer patients in a study, experienced swelling in the arms or hands , a condition known as lymphedema, after surgical removal of either the breast or the tumor.

Lymphedema was evident in about a third of the women and those with the swelling reported having a lower quality of life than those without the swelling.

Electra Paskett, lead author of a new study, says that women don't know about lymphedema. Paskett is a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Ohio State University's School of Public Health.

Paskett says that when a breast cancer survivor has swelling in her arm, she may immediately think that her cancer has come back, and the swelling, which may occur at any time, is a constant reminder of having had cancer.

The swelling occurs most often on the same side of the body as the breast affected by cancer, but is not usually a sign of the cancer recurring.

Lymphedema is caused by a build-up of lymphatic fluid and is more common among women who had a higher number of lymph nodes removed during surgery.

The study also found that being married was associated with a higher risk of lymphedema, but were unable to explain this association.

The researchers say there is no cure for lymphedema, which can be painful and make it difficult for affected patients to use their arms or hands. Swelling can be reduced through massage or by wearing a compression garment, such as a tight sleeve or glove, that forces lymph fluid out of the hand or arm and back into the body.

The study was presented on June 11 at the U.S. Department of Defense's Breast Cancer Research meeting meeting, in Philadelphia.

Doctors would like to be able to prescribe a daily pill which would cut the risk, although it would be important that the side effects should be minimal, since it would be taken by healthy women.

Anastrozole is currently being prescribed to some women who have had breast cancer, because trials have shown it cuts the risk of a cancer developing in the unaffected breast by half.

The drug reduces the amount of oestrogen produced in the body, which many breast tumours need to grow.

Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at the charity, says it is extremely rare for women to undergo a double mastectomy for preventive reasons but it is a relevant option to women with a very strong family history of breast cancer.

Walker says that the global launch of Ibis-II aims to provide women with a new, far less radical option for preventing breast cancer at a time when numbers of women being diagnosed with the disease and concern about it is high.

Researchers want to recruit 6,000 women at high risk of breast cancer who have been through the menopause to the Ibis-II trial.

Women can take part if they are between 40 and 70 and are not taking hormone replacement therapy.