What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is the buildup of fluid in your body's tissues which brings about swelling, water retention, pain and dimpled skin. Lymphedema is often caused by general surgery, cancer-related surgery and removal of lymph nodes which can all lead to damage to your lymphatic system. In fact, there's a strong connection between breast cancer surgery and lymphedema as breast cancer can often spread to surrounding lymph nodes.
To get a better understanding of the lymphatics, think of your body as a "plumbing system" of arteries and veins that make up what's collectively called the lymphatic system. When working as it should be, the lymphatic system captures fluid from your tissues and pipes it back to your circulatory system. Along the way, the lymphatics pipe through the lymph nodes which act as security "checkpoints" for your immune system which controls the fluid in the lymphatics for harmful agents such as bacteria.
How is Lymphedema Treated?
If you've been told you have lymphedema, there are now surgical procedures to address it.
A lymphedema treatment procedure called a lymphaticovenous bypass may be offered to you. Your surgeon will directly connect a lymphatic vessel to an nearby vein, which either bypasses or avoids any fluid blockages in the lymph nodes as a result of surgery. This type of operation allows for proper drainage of fluid throughout your body's "plumbing system."
In some cases, your surgeon may perform this lymphedema treatment as part of your original cancer surgery to begin reducing the risk of developing lymphedema in advance.
If your lymphedema is very severe, it may be necessary to transplant, or move, part of your lymphatic system to the area of your body affected by lymphedema. This specialized lymphedema surgery is known as vascularized lymph node transfer and is performed by Stamford Health's dedicated and specialty trained lymphedema team.
See diagram at right:
- Left side: Lymphaticovenous bypass for treatment of right arm Lymphedema
- Blocked lymphatic vessel (green), resulting in lymphedema, and vein (blue) are accessed via small skin incisions in the forearm. The lymphatic vessel is cut and connected to the vein to complete the bypass.
- Right side: Vascularized lymph node transfer for treatment of left arm lymphedema
- Lymph nodes and associated artery (red) and vein (blue) are harvested from the groin and transferred to the armpit where lymph nodes were removed as part of the original breast cancer surgery. The restoration of lymph nodes and lymphatic channels helps to improve lymphedema.