Background: Supermicrosurgical advances such as lymphovenous bypass (LVB) have enabled effective physiologic treatment of lymphedema affecting the extremities. Reports of surgical treatment for breast lymphedema (BL) are sparse, consisting of case reports and almost exclusively LVB. We report our experience with BL, including a case of mastectomy and breast reconstruction with abdominal free flap and inguinal vascularized lymph node transfer (VLNT) for BL. We compare our series with the surgical literature to discern unique characteristics and treatment limitations inherent to this disease.

Methods: A database was prospectively maintained from September 2020 to May 2023 including all patients diagnosed with BL who were referred to our institution. Breast lymphedema was diagnosed using clinical criteria, and relevant patient data were recorded. Patients interested in surgical management underwent indocyanine green lymphography to determine candidacy for LVB or other interventions. All patients, including those surgically managed, were treated with complex decongestive therapy.

Results: Nine patients with BL were included. Eight had undergone breast-conserving therapy for breast cancer with whole breast irradiation. One patient was treated for Hodgkin lymphoma with axillary lymphadenectomy and axillary radiation. Indocyanine green lymphography was performed in 6 patients, of which 4 patients had diffuse dermal backflow. Two patients had lymphatic targets suitable for LVB, including the patient without breast irradiation. Three patients were managed surgically. One patient without bypass targets underwent breast reduction with partial symptomatic relief, later followed by a mastectomy with abdominal free flap reconstruction and VLNT. Two patients with suitable bypass targets underwent LVB, with resolution of breast swelling and subjective symptoms.

Conclusions: The diffuse lymphatic obliteration due to radiation field effect in BL results in a distinct pathophysiology compared with extremity lymphedema. Although published reports of surgical BL treatment almost exclusively describe LVB, other surgical options may be more frequently required. Ablative strategies such as mastectomy and regenerative techniques such as VLNT should be considered potential first-line treatment options for these patients.

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