Melissa M Curbing Lymphedema, a Cancer-Related Side Effect

“There’s always room for improvement, but at least I have more tomorrows. I have my breast cancer team at MMC to thank for that.”

Melissa Mazurek of Flemington was just 39 when she received a daunting diagnosis: She had stage 3A breast cancer, a designation that meant her cancer had spread to multiple lymph nodes.

As part of her treatment, doctors surgically removed not only her breast tumor, but also 40 lymph nodes, many of them cancerous. They also explained that her surgery, along with chemotherapy and radiation treatments, increased her risk of developing breast cancer-related lymphedema.

Lymphedema, a chronic condition experienced by many breast cancer survivors, can occur when lymph nodes are removed. Lymph nodes play a role in draining fluids from the body, and removing them can disrupt that process, causing a buildup of lymphatic fluid in the limbs.

Manpreet K. Kohli, MD
Manpreet K. Kohli, MD

“If untreated, this can lead to swelling and enlargement of the arm, heaviness and disability,” says Manpreet K. Kohli, MD, Director of Breast Surgery and Breast Program Leader at Monmouth Medical Center (MMC) and a member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group.

But lymphedema is reversible if detected and treated early. Mazurek understood that regularly monitoring for lymphedema was essential to finding and forestalling the condition as she recovered. “Side effects of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are already challenging to manage,” she says. “Lymphedema would be like adding insult to injury.”

Fast and Accurate

For many years, the only way to detect lymphedema was to compare the circumferences of a patient’s arms and legs with a tape measure. If one arm or leg was growing larger than the other, it could be a sign of lymphedema. But these measurements are not always precise.

Dr. Kohli told Mazurek about a new, more accurate way to diagnose lymphedema. A procedure called bioimpedance spectroscopy (BIS) can detect small fluid-volume changes in a patient’s body. The patient stands on a console as a machine releases a painless electric current and measures the body’s response. BIS is less time-consuming than tape measurements and can detect as little as two tablespoons of extra fluid volume.

Shortly after Dr. Kohli’s conversation with Mazurek, MMC received its first BIS machine. MMC has the only lymphedema prevention program in New Jersey offering this game-changing technology. “It allows us to be proactive in trying to identify lymphedema before it’s evident to the patient,” Dr. Kohli says.

BIS played an important role in Mazurek’s follow-up appointments to monitor for lymphedema. “Despite her being so high-risk for lymphedema, we have kept it at bay with this technology,” Dr. Kohli says. Six years after her treatment, Mazurek is cancer-free and far less likely to develop lymphedema.

For Mazurek, the experience has emphasized the importance of preventive care. “There’s always room for improvement, but at least I have more tomorrows,” she says. “I have my breast cancer team at MMC to thank for that.”

RWJBarnabas Health and Monmouth Medical Center, in partnership with Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey—the state’s only NCI-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center—provide close-to-home access to the most advanced treatment options. Call 844.CANCERNJ (844-226-2376) to make an appointment with one of our cancer specialists.