Washington, D.C. – Pain and swelling in the arm or hand can occur as a side effect of breast cancer surgery, but a new national clinical research study underway at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of Georgetown University Medical Center and Georgetown University Hospital, is looking at ways that might prevent the onset of these symptoms called lymphedema.
“Lymphedema is a complication that many women dread. It can negatively impact a woman’s ability to complete simple daily activities and can take a toll on her physical and emotional well-being,” says Georgetown’s chief breast surgeon Shawna Willey, MD, director of the Betty Lou Ourisman Breast Health Center and lead researcher of the study. “As we understand more about what triggers lymphedema, we’re learning of possible ways to prevent it.”
Lymphedema can occur in some women who have lymph nodes removed from their underarm as part of their breast cancer surgery. (Lymphedema can also occur with other cancer surgeries when lymph nodes are removed such as with the removal of the prostate). Lymph nodes filter fluid as it circulates in the body and help to mobilize this fluid throughout the body. Swelling and pain can occur when the fluid pools in the arm or hand and isn’t able to be removed because of a decrease in the number of lymph nodes.
The Lombardi study looks at the impact that an education program has in preventing lymphedema compared to education plus a customized exercise plan. Information about quality of life for these women also will be gathered.
Women interested in the study sign up before having surgery for their breast cancer. If lymph nodes are not removed during the study, then those women do not continue in the study because lymphedema is not likely to occur. Those who have lymph nodes removed continue in the research program and are randomly assigned to one of two groups: the education-only group or the group with education plus an exercise plan. The women will be asked to participate in about four surveys throughout the two-year study.
“It’s possible that exercise can improve or even prevent the onset of lymphedema,” explains lymphedema specialist Johanna C. Murphy, MS, PT, CLT, director of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Georgetown. “Having a tailored exercise program, however, is important because there are activities that might actually trigger the swelling and pain. For the women assigned to the education plus exercise, learning the correct way of doing the exercises will be an important part of the study.”
In addition to exercise, women in this group will be fitted for a special sleeve and glove that apply light pressure, which might also help prevent lymphedema when combined with the exercise plan. The education program, exercise plan, and sleeve are offered without cost to the patient. Standard instruction and written material about lymphedema will be provided for those choosing not to participate in the study.
“We don’t yet know if the exercise plan and sleeve will be better than education only to prevent the symptoms,” Willey concludes. “We’re grateful to all of our study participants, past and present, as they truly help in advancing our knowledge about this issue.”
Patients interested in learning more about this study should contact Ann Gallagher at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-687-7606.
The study is sponsored by the Cancer and Leukemia Group B, a cooperative group of cancer centers. Willey and Murphy report no personal financial interests related to the study.
About Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center
Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of Georgetown University Medical Center and Georgetown University Hospital, seeks to improve the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of cancer through innovative basic and clinical research, patient care, community education and outreach, and the training of cancer specialists of the future. Lombardi is one of only 40 comprehensive cancer centers in the nation, as designated by the National Cancer Institute, and the only one in the Washington, DC, area. For more information, go to http://lombardi.georgetown.edu.
About Georgetown University Medical Center
Georgetown University Medical Center is an internationally recognized academic medical center with a three-part mission of research, teaching and patient care (through MedStar Health). GUMC’s mission is carried out with a strong emphasis on public service and a dedication to the Catholic, Jesuit principle of cura personalis -- or "care of the whole person." The Medical Center includes the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing and Health Studies, both nationally ranked, the world-renowned Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Biomedical Graduate Research Organization (BGRO). In fiscal year 2009-2010, GUMC accounted for 79 percent of Georgetown University's extramural research funding.