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Lymph node transplants help some breast cancer survivors

Procedure can reduce painful swelling

ROYAL OAK, Mich. – For many survivors, it's a constant reminder of their battle with breast cancer. Painful, lingering swelling that makes it difficult to do every day things.

"It's constantly there.  It never goes away. You always feel like your arm is sticking out a little bit further than the other one," said Peggy Wiggert of Clinton Township.

It's called lymphedema, essentially the build-up of fluid in part of the body. It's a common side effect of cancer treatment when lymph nodes are removed or damaged by radiation.

There's no cure, but there is new hope.

Wiggert was at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak to have her lymph nodes mapped.

"That's your normal lymphatic system that goes," explained Dr. Kongkrit Chaiyasate, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Beaumont.

"I went through several rounds of chemo, ending up having a mastectomy," said Wiggert. "With the cancer actually spreading to my lymph node system, they ended up removing 10 lymph nodes out of my armpit during surgery."

That's left her with significant swelling and numbness. The primary treatments are massage and compression wraps.

"They taught me how to wrap my arm, basically it was from my fingertips up to my shoulder," said Wiggert.  "You look almost like a mummy-effect.  And you would typically keep that on anywhere from six to 10 hours a day."

But that's not very effective for some lymphedema patients.

It's probably the most neglected medical condition," said Chaiyasate, who is determined to help change that.

"Over the past 20 years, we've slowly developed a technique to allow us to help women with lymphedema," said Chaiyasate. "The two main techniques that we use is a lymphovenous bypass and lymph node transplant."

Chaiyasate said lymph node transplants aren't performed more commonly because it's considered experimental by many insurance companies, although it generally does end up being approved for breast cancer patients.

"The results are quite unpredictable," explained Chaiyasate. "Sometimes it works great in some patients, and we do exactly the same procedure on another patient it doesn't work."

But when it does work, the results can be life-changing.

Sherry Boston battled chronic pain and swelling in her right arm after her mastectomy.

"I had a hard time working with the kids, doing stuff around the house. I was limited," said Boston.  "It was real big.  You couldn't control it."​​​​​​​

After Dr. Chaiyasate suggested a lymph node transplant, her swelling was cut in half.

"I feel a lot better with it.  I'm happy with it," said Boston. "I can play with the grandkids. I can pick them up."​​​​​​​

The research is ongoing to figure out which methods are best and why it works for some patients and not others.

It's a chance Wiggert was willing to take. She had the surgery and has seen her swelling significantly reduced.

"It's amazing that they're out there finding these new techniques," said Wiggert.

"When you perform this procedure you have nothing to lose," said Chaiyasate. "Basically if it doesn't work the women go back to the same lymphedema condition. But if it works, you can significantly improve quality of life for the patients. Those patients do need help. They do need help."​​​​​​​

To learn more about the procedure, click here.