Groundbreaking treatment for breast cancer patients

By Matt Papaycik, Producer, mpapaycik@wkmg.com
Published On: Jun 20 2013 11:02:57 PM EDT
Updated On: Jun 21 2013 06:24:08 AM EDT

It's one of the most emotional, painful things a woman can hear -- learning she has breast cancer.

ORLANDO, Fla. -

It's one of the most emotional, painful things a woman can hear -- learning she has breast cancer.

The latest numbers show, more than 200,000 women are diagnosed every year.

But it's not just the disease itself that's a battle -- it's also the side effects that come after your cancer is removed.

One of the most serious side effects is a condition called lymphedema, which is severe swelling of the legs and arms, after surgery.

Mount Dora resident Jean Hutchinson knows the painful reality of the condition.

"You get so disappointed, you get so disgusted and discouraged," says Hutchinson.

After her mastectomy two years ago, Jean's right arm suddenly filled up with fluid, becoming inflamed and swollen.

"It piles and piles," says Hutchinson. "If you nick or scratch yourself, it weeps. The skin would be so tight, and then that created its own pain. It's very uncomfortable, it's one of those things, is it ever gonna go away?"

Her only solution was to stop using her arm altogether.

"Nobody can take that kind of pain every single day, day in, day out. You have to give it a rest," says Hutchinson.

That's the reality for patients with lymphedema. Your lymph nodes stop working and can't filter out that fluid.

According to the National Cancer Institute -- 80% of breast cancer survivors will develop the condition within three years of surgery.

Until now, the only option for Jean was hour-long therapy sessions, three times a week for months.

"The skin can start cracking, you can develop a variety of infections that can be life threatening," says Dr. Richard Klein, with the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Orlando. "It'll remind you of the fact that you've had breast cancer for the rest of your life."

That's why Dr. Klein is excited about a rare new surgery at the Cancer Center. Only four places in the country are doing what's called a Vascularized Lymph Node Transfer. Lymph nodes are taken from one part of your body, and moved to your swollen arm or leg to drain that fluid.

In Jean's case, Dr. Klein took lymph nodes from her lower abdomen, and transferred them to her arm pit.

"They will feel something different in the affected limb within weeks of the operation," says Dr. Klein.

That's what happened to Jean, whose swelling went down almost immediately.

"You shouldn't have to suffer," says Hutchinson. I wanted back what I lost, that's all. I didn't want any extra, I just wanted back what I lost."

Doctors say that some insurance plans do cover this surgery.

But right now, it's not being done as a preventative measure. Patients can only get it if you start showing signs of lymphedema.

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