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Women’s College Hospital performs the first auto-transplantation of lymph nodes in Canada

from the April 18, 2011 issue of Connect

Women’s College Hospital performs the first auto-transplantation of lymph nodes in Canada

Susan Virgint-Campbell has bravely overcome many obstacles in her life. As a breast cancer survivor, she has undergone chemotherapy, radiation and a mastectomy. But Virgint-Campbell didn’t anticipate facing another obstacle – a side-effect from the breast cancer treatment that would stay with her for the rest of her life: lymphedema.

In fact, up to 40 per cent of patients who have undergone breast cancer treatment are affected by lymphedema, a long-term condition that causes painful swelling in the arms or back.

After suffering from lymphedema for three and a half years, Virgint-Campbell was given hope last June during a consultation for TRAM flap breast reconstruction surgery with Dr. John Semple, chief of surgery at Women’s College Hospital. He informed her about a groundbreaking procedure to help relieve the side-effects of lymphedema.

Three weeks after the consultation, Virgint-Campbell became the first patient in Canada to receive an auto-transplantation of lymph nodes by Dr. Semple and the interdisciplinary surgical team at Women's College Hospital.

“I was very afraid because I had heard that the recovery after a TRAM flap surgery is extremely painful, and I was having the lymph node transplantation on top of that,” says Virgint-Campbell. “But I woke up surprisingly comfortable with very little pain, thanks to Women's College Hospital’s advanced pain relief care.  I am so grateful Women’s College Hospital gave me the opportunity to improve my quality of life with regards to the lymphedema that I have to deal with every day.”

While there is no cure for lymphedema, the results from the procedure – which involved transplanting lymph nodes from Virgint-Campbell’s leg to under her arm – have been promising. She has seen a reduction in the swelling of her arm, and especially in the swelling of her back.

“Lymphedema is an often ignored side-effect of breast cancer treatment that plagues a lot of patients,” explains Dr. Semple. “If it’s caught early, you can apply bandages or use massage techniques to reduce swelling, but it’s still a big problem. Now, a new solution is available for these patients.”

Lymphedema occurs when there is a blockage in the lymphatic system – a significant part of both the immune and circulatory systems – resulting in a buildup of lymph fluid that cannot flow properly through the body. This buildup of fluid causes swelling.

Commonly, women treated for breast cancer have lymph nodes removed from under the arm if there is a chance the cancer has spread. This procedure, along with radiation and chemotherapy, can disrupt the flow of lymph fluid in the arm, causing lymphedema. Along with varying degrees of swelling, patients with lymphedema may experience tightness of their hands, discomfort, restricted movement of the affected limb and an increased risk of infections.

Traditional treatments for lymphedema include daily exercise, deep breathing and good skin care. But Tania Oblijubek, physiotherapist at Women’s College Hospital, explains that, “when traditional treatment fails and a lifetime commitment to daily self care becomes a challenge, the surgical transplant of nodes can become a good option.”

Almost a year after the surgery, Virgint-Campbell is happy she was provided the opportunity to have the first lymph node transplantation in Canada at Women's College Hospital.

“I’ve spoken with a lot of women who have to deal with the devastating side-effects of lymphedema,” she says. “If being the first one to have this procedure means the advancement of women’s health and helping other women with lymphedema in the future, then I believe it was all worthwhile.”

 Dr. John Semple (right) and team treat lymphedema with auto-transplantation of lymph nodes.
Dr. John Semple (right) and team treat lymphedema with auto-transplantation of lymph nodes.

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