Journal Articles

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Breast Cancer Research and Treatment


PURPOSE: Mild breast cancer-related lymphedema (BCRL) is clinically diagnosed as a 5%-10% increase in arm volume, typically measured no earlier than 3-6 months after locoregional treatment. Early BCRL treatment is associated with better outcomes, yet amid increasing evidence that lymphedema exists in a latent form, treatment is typically delayed until arm swelling is obvious. In this study, we investigated whether near-infrared fluorescence lymphatic imaging (NIRF-LI) surveillance could characterize early onset of peripheral lymphatic dysfunction as a predictor of BCRL.

METHODS: In a prospective, longitudinal cohort/observational study (NCT02949726), subjects with locally advanced breast cancer who received axillary lymph node dissection and regional nodal radiotherapy (RT) were followed serially, between 2016 and 2021, before surgery, 4-8 weeks after surgery, and 6, 12, and 18 months after RT. Arm volume was measured by perometry, and lymphatic (dys) function was assessed by NIRF-LI.

RESULTS: By 18 months after RT, 30 of 42 study subjects (71%) developed mild-moderate BCRL (i.e., ≥ 5% arm swelling relative to baseline), all manifested by "dermal backflow" of lymph into lymphatic capillaries or interstitial spaces. Dermal backflow had an 83% positive predictive value and 86% negative predictive value for BCRL, with a sensitivity of 97%, specificity of 50%, accuracy of 83%, positive likelihood ratio of 1.93, negative likelihood ratio of 0.07, and odds ratio of 29.00. Dermal backflow appeared on average 8.3 months, but up to 23 months, before the onset of mild BCRL.

CONCLUSION: BCRL can be predicted by dermal backflow, which often appears months before arm swelling, enabling early treatment before the onset of edema and irreversible tissue changes.


Breast Cancer Lymphedema, Breast Neoplasms, Female, Humans, Lymph Node Excision, Lymphatic Vessels, Lymphedema, Prospective Studies

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