Patients who have been through a mastectomy and had their axillary lymph nodes removed often suffer from lymphedema, a condition which involves swelling in an area of the body where there are no longer lymph nodes to remove fluid from that extremity. In the case of a mastectomy, the patient generally experiences swelling of the hand and arm in the affected side.
Lymphedema is a chronic and lifelong condition. It can be treated using compression sleeves and massage, but these methods don’t always work for everyone, and they’re far from permanent fixes. Instead, they need to be performed for the rest of the person’s life.
Lymphedema can be painful and embarrassing. Sometimes massage and compression sleeves are not enough to keep the swelling down. Often, patients have trouble finding clothing that fits them well if they have a very swollen arm, and they receive unwanted stares from strangers who don’t know about the condition.
In an effort to combat lymphedema, surgeons have developed a couple of different surgeries to help the body get rid of fluid by other means. One of these procedures is called a lymph node transplant. In this procedure, lymph nodes from an unaffected area of the patient’s body are removed and reinserted in the affected area to help reduce swelling. Having new lymph nodes in place of the old ones gives the fluid a place to go, reducing backups in the lymphatic system.
During a lymph node transplant, your surgical team will make an incision in the lower abdomen near a grouping of lymph nodes. Using a microscope, they will carefully select lymph nodes and vessels whose removal will not cause lymphedema to occur in the legs. They will then cut the desired area out and move it to the armpit area of the affected arm, where there used to be lymph nodes. The dead tissue in that area will be removed to prepare it for the new lymph nodes to be inserted and the blood vessels and lymph vessels to be attached to existing vessels.
After surgery, patients should continue to wear compression sleeves as normal and perform self-massage to help keep swelling down. Most will begin to see results within a few days or weeks. Not all patients will see results from surgery, particularly those who have suffered from the condition for a long time or not treated it properly. But it’s a procedure that’s certainly worth a try for many people struggling with lymphedema on a daily basis.
Your lymphedema doesn’t have to control your life. Check out the video below to learn more about how a lymph node transplant works.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?