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J Clin Oncol. 1999 Jan;17(1):143-9.

Physical and psychological morbidity after axillary lymph node dissection for breast cancer.

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  • 1University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada. thack@wca.mb.ca



Alternatives to axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) are being developed amid controversy surrounding the therapeutic benefit and overall utility of this routine surgical procedure. Although potential negative side effects associated with ALND are known, we set out to examine whether these side effects contribute significantly to patient reports of quality of life and mental health.


We surveyed 222 women who had received an ALND as part of breast cancer surgery. All women underwent a physical therapy assessment of range of arm/shoulder motion and completed the Modified Post-operative Pain Questionnaire, the Pain Disability Index, the McGill Pain Questionnaire (short form), the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer Quality of Life Questionnaire, and the Mental Health Inventory.


Seventy-two percent of the women experienced arm/shoulder pain, weakness, or numbness in the week before the interview, and range of motion of the affected arm/shoulder was impaired in 73% of the women. Severity of pain was reported to be low to moderate, and younger patients experienced greater pain than older patients. Pain severity correlated positively with the number of lymph nodes removed and receipt of chemotherapy and was not significantly related to length of time since surgery or receipt of radiation therapy. Generally high levels of cancer-specific quality of life and mental health were reported. Quality of life was significantly predicted by the McGill Pain Questionnaire, and mental health was significantly predicted by the Pain Disability Index and the physical therapy assessment.


Surgery-related symptoms after ALND persist for a majority of women with breast cancer and are not significantly related to time since surgery or receipt of radiation therapy. These symptoms and associated disability are significantly predictive of cancer-specific quality of life and mental health.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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