Secondary lymphedema is caused by local injuries of the lymphatic system for instance due to cancer treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy. The injuries of the lymphatic system will disrupt the normal flow of lymph, which will consequently start to accumulate in tissue, for instance in a limb. This results in chronic, progressive swelling. Approximately 10-30% of breast cancer survivors who undergo axillary lymph node dissection will develop secondary lymphedema.
Symptoms of secondary lymphedema include progressing swelling of the affected limb, pain, decreased mobility, and increased forming of connective tissue. Secondary lymphedema is a disabling and disfiguring disease, which significantly impacts the quality of life of the patients. Many patients also suffer from repeated infections of the affected tissue. Approximately 150,000 cases of cancer associated lymphedema are diagnosed annually in the USA and Europe.
There are no approved drugs for the treatment of lymphedema. Known treatments such as wearing a compression garment, lymph therapy, and exercise may alleviate the symptoms. In the early stage of the disease a surgical procedure, lymph node transplantation surgery, may be considered.
According to the PhD dissertation of MD, PhD Tiina Viitanen approximately a third of the studied patients had an improved lymph circulation in the 6-24 months follow-up period after a lymph node transplantation surgery. Approximately half of the patients could either reduce or discontinue wearing a compression garment. The PhD dissertation is available HERE.