The legacy of lymphedema: Impact on nursing practice and vascular access

Gail Larocque, Sheryl McDiarmid


Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. Breast cancer related lymphedema (BCRL) is a chronic condition characterized by an abnormal accumulation of protein-rich fluid in tissues resulting in swelling of the upper limb or trunk after treatment. Lack of consensus on definition, classification and grading of BCRL has led to subjective and objective parameters estimating incidence and severity. Prospective studies estimate the risk of BCRL to be approximately 21.4% (14.9–29.8). In patients with axillary lymph node dissection (ALND), the estimated risk of 19% (13.5–28.2) was about four times higher than those patients who had sentinel lymph node biopsy (5.6%, 6.1–7.9). Seventy percent of these patients will experience BCRL within two years of surgery, 90% within three years, and a 1% rate per year thereafter. Many patients who have no high-risk variables such as mastectomy, ALND and radiation therapy develop BCRL. Patients fear this complication, which has no cure and no proven prevention strategies. Risk reduction strategies, primarily focused on reducing trauma to the surgical arm, are based on anecdotal information and effectively restrict the use of the at-risk limb for the patient’s lifetime.

Although broad risk reduction strategies have been recommended, the avoidance of needle sticks has become the most common strategy practised, enforced through institutional policies and procedures and reinforced through patient education initiatives and breast cancer support groups. Large cohort studies have found no significant association between blood draws and intravenous infusions in the surgical arm and the development of BCRL. Current literature supports that approximately 21% of patients will develop BCRL, leaving 79% free of the complication. Due to increased survival, breast cancer survivors go on to develop other healthcare issues that may require vascular access. Therefore, long-held beliefs with regards to risk factors and preventative measures need to be challenged. Education of healthcare providers, patients and support groups through the dissemination of evidence-based information on the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of BCRL is necessary to ensure that patients receive the best care possible with the least risk.

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