Lymphedema – Raising Awareness and Providing Hope
Lymphedema awareness month occurs every March. This month and every month, our physicians and staff are passionate about raising awareness for this chronic, and sometimes overlooked, a condition that affects people all over the world.
Lymphedema is a chronic condition that often manifests as an abnormal buildup of fluid, causing swelling, most commonly in the arms or legs. This swelling may be present since birth or develop without a known reason. Lymphedema can also occur after radiation or certain cancer-related surgeries. Initially reversible, lymphedema typically progresses to irreversible, restricting the range of motion and limiting everyday activities. There is no cure for lymphedema, and its symptoms typically are only managed by way of lymphatic massage, wrapping of the affected limb, or constantly wearing compression garments.
Dr. Russell Ashinoff, director of The Center for Lymphedema Surgery at The Institute for Advanced Reconstruction, is passionate about increasing awareness about the surgical treatment options available for lymphedema. Along with Dr. Eric I. Chang, they are among the few physicians in the world currently offering advanced surgical options for the treatment of lymphedema. The goal of these procedures is to increase patients’ quality of life by improving or alleviating the symptoms associated with lymphedema.
Q&A with Dr. Eric Chang
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background and training.
A: I completed a fellowship in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at UCLA Medical Center and first got exposed to lymphedema surgery when it was first becoming popular. Then I went to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX for my Reconstructive Microsurgery Fellowship where I was able to work with many of the national experts in lymphedema surgery. After completing my training, I went to Fox Chase Cancer Center where I built the lymphedema surgery program and performed the first vascularized lymph node transfer and lymphovenous bypasses in Philadelphia.
Q: What made you start wanting to treat lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a such a difficult problem that afflicts so many patients around the world. As a reconstructive microsurgeon focusing on free flap reconstruction in patients with all types of cancer including breast cancer, head and neck cancer, sarcoma, and melanoma, treatment of lymphedema is another integral part of comprehensive cancer care.
Q: What special training was required to treat lymphedema?
The reconstructive microsurgery requires specific training in lymphedema surgery with an additional fellowship because the surgeries are so intricate and delicate. Treatment by an untrained surgeon can worsen lymphedema and prevent patients from getting the appropriate treatment by a trained microsurgeon.
Q: What are the common surgeries done to treat lymphedema treatment?
There are physiologic procedures including vascularized lymph node transfer or lymphovenous bypasses or anastomoses as well as resective surgeries to debulk the affected region. Learn more about the different procedures here.
Q: Which surgery do you think works best?
Physiologic procedures, such as lymph node transfer or lymphovenous bypasses or anastomoses provide longer lasting results.
Q: Who is a good candidate for surgery?
All patients affected with lymphedema are potential candidates for lymphatic surgery unless the patient suffers from venous hypertension or morbid obesity.
Q: What is recovery like?
The typical recovery period is about 4 weeks.
Q: What do you hope for the future of lymphedema treatment?
I hope that there will be more surgeons becoming adequately trained to perform lymphedema surgery and that insurance companies will realize the value of lymphedema surgery and no longer consider it experimental.
Our Center for Lymphedema Surgery is recognized as a Lymphatic Disease Surgery Center of Excellence (COE) by the Lymphatic Education and Research Network (LE&RN). This designation indicates that our center has undergone extensive review by a global panel of experts and meets all COE criteria set forth by LE&RN.