Sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy was adopted for the staging of the axilla with the assumption that it would reduce the risk of lymphedema in women with breast cancer. This study was undertaken to examine patient perceptions of lymphedema and use of precautionary behaviors several years after axillary surgery.
Patients and Methods
Nine hundred thirty-six women who underwent SLN biopsy (SLNB) alone or SLNB followed by axillary lymph node dissection (SLNB/ALND) between June 1, 1999, and May 30, 2003, were evaluated at a median of 5 years after surgery. Patient-perceived lymphedema and avoidant behaviors were assessed through interview and administered a validated instrument, and compared with arm measurements.
Current arm swelling was reported in 3% of patients who received SLNB alone versus 27% of patients who received SLNB/ALND (P < .0001), as compared with 5% and 16%, respectively, with measured lymphedema. Only 41% of patients reporting arm swelling had measured lymphedema, and 5% of patients reporting no arm swelling had measured lymphedema. Risk factors associated with reported arm swelling were greater body weight (P < .0001), higher body mass index (P < .0001), infection (P < .0001), and injury (P = .007) in the ipsilateral arm since surgery. Patients followed more precautions if they had measured or perceived lymphedema.
Body weight, infection, and injury are significant risk factors for perceiving lymphedema. There is significant discordance between the presence of measured and patient-perceived lymphedema. When compared to SLNB/ALND, SLNB-alone results in a significantly lower rate of patient-perceived arm swelling 5 years postoperatively, and is perceived by fewer women than are measured to have it.