The standard of care for early-stage breast cancer includes surgical removal of the tumor and axillary lymph node dissection (ALND). Despite increased use of breast-conserving surgery, lymphedema rates are similar to those with more radical surgery.
Women who experience breast cancer–related lymphedema have a measurable reduction in quality of life compared with women without lymphedema.
In a retrospective cohort study, we explored the association between lymphedema and quality of life, controlling for patient demographics, surgical factors, and treatment types.
An urban academic medical center and a community hospital.
A total of 151 women surgically treated for early-stage breast cancer (stages 0-II) were assessed at least 1 year after their ALND. The women had been treated with either conservative surgery and radiation or mastectomy without radiation.
Main Outcome Measures
Arm volume was measured by water displacement. Grip strength and range-of-motion measurements assessed arm function. The Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy–Breast (FACT-B) quality-of-life instrument assessed breast, emotional, functional, physical, and social well-being.
Lymphedema (an arm volume difference ≥200 cm3) was measured in 42 women (27.8%). Mastectomy or conservative surgery patients had similar lymphedema rates. Women with lymphedema in both surgical groups scored significantly lower on 4 of the 5 subsections than women without lymphedema, even after adjusting for other factors influencing quality of life.
Lymphedema occurs at appreciable rates, and its impact on long-term quality of life in survivors of early-stage breast cancer should not be underestimated.