Lymphedema is swelling caused by fluid that collects in tissue under the skin. Clinical research coordinators discuss the Lymphedema Screening Program at Mass General and their current LymphVAX project related to COVID-19 vaccination.
Explore the Breast Cancer-Related Lymphedema (BCRL) Program
A Leader in Prospective Screening
We screen for breast cancer-related lymphedema in all newly diagnosed breast cancer patients at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. We treat the condition in its earliest stages. We have evaluated more than 6,000 breast cancer patients.
Our program's multidisciplinary team works together to:
- Ensure ongoing screening
- Educate patients about risk factors, signs and symptoms
- Provide top-notch management
If lymphedema is detected, we design an individualized treatment plan focusing on physical therapy.
What is Breast Cancer-Related Lymphedema (BCRL)?
Lymphedema is a lymphatic system disease that causes swelling. The lymphatic system collects extra fluid, known as lymph, as well as proteins and other substances, from the body's tissues. If the flow of lymph in the body is blocked, fluid can collect in the tissues under the skin. Patients who have undergone surgery or radiation therapy to the lymph nodes for breast cancer are at risk of developing Breast Cancer-Related Lymphedema (BCRL). Other risk factors include:
- Being overweight at time of breast cancer diagnosis (body mass index (≥25 kg/m2)
- Skin infections in the area of breast cancer treatment (cellulitis)
BCRL can develop weeks, months, or years after cancer treatment, however, most patients who develop BCRL do so within the first three to four years after cancer treatment. Possible early signs of BCLR include:
- Puffiness or swelling
- Clothing, bra or jewelry that feels tighter than usual or leaves a dent or mark on the skin
- A feeling of fullness in the affected area
- A feeling of heaviness or fatigue in the affected area
- An area of the skin that is red or warm to the touch
BCRL symptoms may look like those associated with other medical conditions. Call your treatment team if you have any of these symptoms.
Our Screening Process
Having a baseline measurement is greatly beneficial in screening for BCRL, which is why we encourage all our breast cancer patients to have a baseline arm volume taken prior to surgery and/or radiation therapy. We take this measurement using a device called a perometer. Perometers use photosensors and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to illuminate and scan the limb.
Further measurements are then taken during and after your breast cancer treatment. The volume calculated at these appointments is compared to the initial baseline measurement, to detect subtle signs of swelling that may indicate BCRL development. The success of our screening program is demonstrated by the lower incidence of BCRL in our patients (<10.0%) compared to the national average (20.0%), and the success of more manageable and less burdensome treatment when BCRL is diagnosed in its earlier stages.
Treatment for Breast Cancer-Related Lymphedema (BCRL)
While there is no cure for BCRL, treatment can help minimize the burden you experience. In most cases, treatment focuses on physical therapy rather than medication. In working with a trained lymphedema therapist, you can learn to massage your arm, do helpful exercises and bandage your arm, if needed. Wearing a compression glove or sleeve during the day or at night may also be a treatment option.
Through early detection and the proper treatment plan, many lymphedema patients can maintain their daily lifestyle.
Research & Clinical Trials
Our research focuses on survivorship, investigation of symptoms, impact on quality of life and early detection and intervention of breast cancer related lymphedema, cardiac and pulmonary toxicity from radiation and partial breast irradiation in one-week radiation treatment for early breast cancer.
Since 2010, our team has published over 45 papers discussing Breast Cancer-Related Lymphedema.
Meet the Team
The Breast Cancer-Related Lymphedema program, part of the Center for Breast Cancer, was launched in 2005 under the leadership of Alphonse Taghian, MD, PhD.
Lymphedema is swelling caused by fluid that collects in the tissues under the skin. This fluid is called “lymph.” Patients who have undergone surgery or radiation therapy for breast cancer have greater risk of developing lymphedema. Breast cancer-related lymphedema can occur in the breast, chest wall, arm and/or hand.
Download this pdf to learn more about lymphedema & breast cancer (Spanish/Español version)
We provide comprehensive, compassionate care for patients with any stage of breast cancer.
This program enhances body, mind & spirit both after and during breast cancer treatment.
This program helps patients regain physical abilities and maintain independence.
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View recommendations for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine after cancer surgery requiring lymph node removal under the arm.