This article describes lymph node transfer surgery, which replaces lymph nodes that were removed or damaged during breast cancer surgery and radiation treatment with nodes from elsewhere on a patient’s body.
The article briefly cautions readers near the end of the story about the limited data and the need for patients to be evaluated by a “comprehensive lymphedema program.” But it doesn’t address costs, potential harms, and the actual number of women who might benefit from this invasive procedure. It also relies on a single anecdote of a Wisconsin woman whose condition rendered her unable to shovel snow or cross-country ski–a degree of severity that doesn’t appear to reflect the experience of most patients.
It’s good to see media coverage of lymphedema, a little-discussed consequence of some breast cancer treatment in which lymph nodes can no longer carry out their function of draining fluid, leading to swelling of a patient’s arm and other areas of the upper body. More awareness could be helpful because, according to Breastcancer.org, detecting early symptoms can catch the condition before it damages soft tissue, increasing the likelihood of successful treatment with compression and other low-risk interventions. Surgery is a relatively risky and untested treatment option, and news coverage needs to stress that.
There’s no discussion of costs, although the story does mention that insurance coverage varies.
After featuring one woman’s positive outcome, the only discussion in the story about the scope of the benefits was this statement:
About a third of lymph node transfer patients see some positive effect, Song said.
It’s not clear where that information comes from–a clinical trial? More should have been said about what we know (or don’t know) about the potential benefits.
The story does make it clear that this surgery works for “some but not all” women” and is “not a cure.”
There’s no discussion of medical risks and hardships of surgery. Along with the usual risks posed by surgery, there’s a risk that lymph node transfer could cause lymphedema to develop in the part of the body where healthy nodes were extracted, according to Breastcancer.org. For many women those drawbacks may outweigh the potential for an uncertain benefit.
Near the end of the story, there is a paragraph that conveys the tenuous nature of the evidence to support this surgery, saying a surgeon “noted that over about the past decade, the microsurgeries have been studied only in small research trials, and results vary with surgeon experience.” That helps readers know there isn’t much research, but we think more specifics were needed. How many patients have been studied? How do we know results vary by surgeon? What kind of research trials were these? Did they compare microsurgery to other approaches?
Not all people with lymphedema have symptoms as severe as the patient featured in this story, whose arm was “painfully swollen to lift anything heavy or even fit into her usual clothing.” That should have been conveyed more clearly.
The story also quotes a surgeon saying that typical patients have “had that swelling for a while” and “treatment is an uphill battle.” Of course, surgeons tend to see only a segment of cases that haven’t responded well to other treatments.
Breastcancer.org calls surgery “an option of last resort for severe lymphedema that does not respond to treatment. Most people with lymphedema would not be considered candidates for surgery.”
The two doctors quoted are both surgeons. The article would have benefited from an expert familiar with a range of treatments for breast cancer-related lymphedema; for example, a lymphedema-certified physical therapist.
There are a range of treatment options for lymphedema. The article mentions a few:
The main treatment consists of wearing compression bandages and massage to bring down swelling. A lymphedema specialist initially prescribed a large pump that massaged (patient) Wolfe-Tank’s arm for an hour a night, temporarily relieving some of the pain.
It also says lymph node transfer is “not the only option. A technique called lymphovenous bypass reroutes lymph-carrying channels, going around damaged or missing nodes to drain into veins instead.”
The story laudably conveys a recommendation that patients be “evaluated in a comprehensive lymphedema program to determine their best options.” Information on what a “comprehensive lymphedema program” is and how to find one would have been useful.
The story says “a small but growing number of hospitals offer microsurgical attempts at relief from lymphedema.” It also mentions that it’s sometimes covered by insurance.
The story mentions a “small but growing” number of hospitals that offer this microsurgery along with a backdrop of concern that women aren’t being adequately monitored for lymphedema following breast cancer treatment:
Yet too often women aren’t warned about symptoms or checked for early signs, when lymphedema is more easily treated, said Dr. Sheldon Feldman of New York’s Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care. He co-authored physician guidelines issued this fall by the American Society of Breast Surgeons on prevention and treatment of breast cancer-related lymphedema.
The story does not appear to rely on a news release.