Preventing and treating Lymphedema – new program, clinic and surgery now available

Lymphedema is the build-up of fluid in soft body tissues when the lymph system is damaged or blocked. It is a common problem that may be caused by cancer and cancer treatment. The University of Kansas Cancer Center and The University of Kansas Hospital have launched a new clinic, surgical procedure and prevention program to help patients dealing with lymphedema risk and symptoms.

Patients who undergo axillary lymph node dissection have a 20-40 percent risk of developing lymphedema That is one of the reasons The University of Kansas Cancer Center opened a Lymphedema Clinic this fall. The clinic's mission is to help patients manage this chronic condition.

The clinic, temporarily located at KU Cancer Center – Overland Park, will have three occupational therapists. One specializes in the care of head and neck cancer patients, and the two others will focus on breast cancer patients. In one year, projections are staff will care for 450 breast cancer patients and 150 head and neck cancer patients.

"Oncology rehab specialists evaluate and treat disorders associated with cancer, emphasizing the restoration and maintenance of function and quality of life," said Kamal Fetouh, M.D., physiatrist, and medical director of Oncology Rehabilitation Physician Services. "More than 11 million people in the United States are living with a previously diagnosed cancer, so the demand for oncology rehabilitation services is huge and growing."

To help meet this demand, The University of Kansas Medical Center has established an oncology rehabilitation fellowship, one of just three in the nation.

Oncology rehabilitation is a multidisciplinary field. It requires the services of many specialties to provide comprehensive care, including:

  • Rehabilitation Medicine (a.k.a PM&R, Physiatry)
  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Lymphedema therapy
  • Speech and language pathology
  • Prosthetics and orthotics

Lymphedema is just one of the many conditions managed through oncology rehabilitation. Others include:

  • Cancer-related fatigue
  • Chemotherapy-induced neuropathy (CIPN)
  • Chewing or Swallowing impairments
  • Gait abnormalities
  • Radiation induced fibrosis
  • Post-operative dysfunction
  • Musculoskeletal impairments

"Right now, our focus is on lymphedema patients," said Julie Ginter, director, Rehabilitation Services at The University of Kansas Hospital. "But our ultimate goal is to provide therapy for all types of conditions brought on by cancer."

Plans are in the works to open an oncology rehabilitation center on the Indian Creek Campus in the future.

Innovative surgery brings relief to Lymphedema patients

For up to 30 percent of breast cancer survivors, lymphedema develops. For some sufferers, there is a surgical technique that often makes a significant improvement in symptoms, called vascularized lymph node transfer. The University of Kansas Hospital is the only place in the region that offers this micros vascular technique. Surgeon Teresa Buescher, M.D., has been performing the surgery since 2010.

The technique involves taking lymph nodes from the abdomen and reconnecting them into the arm pit or wrist to allow the drainage of lymph fluids and resume some normal functions. View the video for more information.

Stopping lymphedema before it starts

The Lymphedema Prevention Program launched in October to monitor breast cancer patients for signs of lymphedema. With locations at the Westwood Campus and the Indian Creek Campus, the program staff provides physical assessment at regular intervals, educational materials, risk prevention information and monitoring for further treatment and intervention needs.

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