Health Team

Preventing post-surgical problems for breast cancer patients

Posted December 27, 2012 5:30 p.m. EST
Updated December 27, 2012 6:57 p.m. EST

— Women who undergo breast cancer surgery can often experience uncomfortable swelling associated with lymphedema, but a new device is helping catch the symptoms earlier, allowing doctors to begin preventative care soon after surgery. 

Mirtha Richardson, a breast cancer survivor, is one of several women involved in a study that monitors fluid buildup, one of the first symptoms of lymphedema. 

She underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation earlier this year and hasn't suffered from any other complications since. 

"The emotional roller coaster was unbelievable," she said. "But, I did well post-operatively. I did very well."

For other women, the weeks, months and even years after surgery can be filled with treatments for lymphedema, which starts when fluid builds up in the arm after lymph nodes are removed. 

The fluid can lead to swelling, which in extreme cases can restrict motion and be very painful.

Doctors at the Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care in New York have been testing a new device that could pick up the early signs of the condition. 

The device, called an L-DEX, uses pads similar to those used in an EKG. They send a weak electrical current through the arm to measure any increases in fluid.

"The same current you would feel and perceive if you held a AA battery between two fingers," Dr. Lisa Wiechmann said. "It's truly minimal and imperceptible."

If the L-DEX reveals extra fluid in the arms, doctors can begin early treatments that may include massage therapy or compression sleeves to keep swelling down. Currently, most doctors use a tape measure to track any changes in arm size.

Richardson hasn't noticed any changes yet, but said she wants to continue monitoring potential changes. 

"That's my main concern, to be able to catch things on time," she said. 

The current study monitors women for up to three years following breast cancer procedures.