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Am J Surg. 1999 Mar;177(3):184-7; discussion 188.

Quality of life of breast cancer patients with lymphedema.

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Department of Surgery, Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit, Michigan 48202-2689, USA.



Quality of life has increasingly become an important issue in breast cancer treatment. One of the impetuses for sentinel lymph node biopsy or selective axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) is the assumed decreased incidence of lymphedema compared with standard ALND. This is based on the assumption that ALND is associated with a clinically significant incidence of lymphedema and that this lymphedema decreases the quality of life of these patients. However, few data exist on this issue. This study attempts to define the incidence and effect on quality of life of postoperative lymphedema in breast cancer patients.


To determine the incidence of postoperative lymphedema, the Breast Cancer Registry at Henry Ford Hospital was accessed to obtain information on all patients who underwent ALND in the management of breast cancer over a 7-year period. The registry is a prospectively gathered data base to include the development of various complications, such as lymphedema. To determine the effects of lymphedema on quality of life, 101 consecutive, unselected patients who underwent breast surgery were asked to complete the SF-36, a generic quality of life instrument. The SF-36 measures eight domains of quality of life. Patients were then divided into three groups: (1) breast surgery without ALND (-ALND), (2) breast surgery with ALND but no lymphedema (-LE), and (3) breast surgery with ALND and lymphedema (+LE).


In all, 827 patients with ALND were identified in the registry. Of these, 8.3% developed clinically apparent lymphedema. Patients in -ALND and -LE groups had similar scores in all domains of the SF-36. However, patients in the +LE group had significantly lower scores in the domains of role-emotional and bodily pain. A significantly higher percentage of patients in the +LE group had scores below one standard deviation compared with national norms in the domains of bodily pain (P = 0.005), mental health (P = 0.01), and general health (P = 0.04).


Although postoperative lymphedema occurs in a minority of patients, when it does occur it can produce demonstrable diminutions in quality of life. Therefore, efforts to reduce the incidence of lymphedema, such as sentinel lymph node biopsy or selective ALND, would benefit breast cancer patients.

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