Lymphedema breakthrough: Local surgeon offers hope to breast cancer survivors

Survivors battle painful lymphedema; surgeon offers lymph node transfer procedure

NOVI, Mich. - Battling breast cancer is a journey full of challenges, but some of them last long after that initial fight is won.

Marcia Pearson was 49 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

In 1997, she underwent a lumpectomy and removal of the lymph nodes in her armpit. Four years later, she developed pain in the arm on the side of her surgery. The discomfort progressed quickly.

"I got up one morning and my arm was just all swelled up," said Pearson. "I had a great big bag under the arm. It was all red, you couldn't even see knuckles."

She was diagnosed with an infection, but it turned out to be related to her earlier breast cancer surgery. Pearson had not even heard of the real problem, known as lymphedema.

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema means swelling related to lymphatic problems. Lymph nodes, which are located throughout our body, collect and filter out abnormal cells. When someone has breast cancer, it's the lymph nodes in the armpit that are the first site of spread, that's why they're commonly removed. The problem is, without these lymph nodes, the other area they drain, including the arm, can swell.

Dr. Rebecca Studinger, a Providence Park Hospital plastic surgeon, sees this problem in patients often.

"I've had patients that can't put their hand behind their back, can't put it above their head because it's too heavy or too bulky," said Studinger.

Pearson also began having more frequent arm infections, which can become quite severe, even life-threatening.

"Traditional methods to use to help treat lymphedema are what are called 'compression garments' to wear on the arm," said Studinger.

These garments or pumps squeeze fluid out of the arm, but in severe cases like Pearson's, they're not always effective.

"My lymphedema started getting really bad," said Pearson. "I was starting to get scared that there wasn't anything out there for me, no hope, and it was a very depressing time."

Lymph node transfer

That's when she discovered Studinger and a surgical procedure pioneered and refined in France, called a lymph node transfer.

"A lymph node transfer is when you take lymph nodes from one area of the body and move them to the area that's not draining well," explained Studinger.

Not many people have heard of procedure and that has made it difficult for many of the patients Studinger treats.

"They've been told there's nothing that you can do, that the only thing you can do is wrap it or do massage or do those kind of things, and because of that they don't want to get too hopeful," said Studinger.

Pearson had the surgery. A group of lymph nodes were taken from her groin and transplanted into her armpit.

"It's over 90 percent of the time that people have a good result with this where either they will see a reduction in the size of their arm or their leg, or the infection rate going down," said Studinger.

The results aren't immediate. Usually the swelling builds up over a period of years, and it can take that long for it to reverse. But Studinger said the reversal is consistent, and in most cases people will find themselves cured of the major swelling.

So far Pearson has had good results.

"I just want anyone who has this condition to know that there is hope," said Pearson.

For more information about lymph node transfer, call St. John Providence Health at 866-501-DOCS (3627) or click here.

Copyright 2013 by All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.