The condition is the result of the removal or damage of lymph nodes, which drain lymphatic fluid.
Lymph nodes are sometimes removed during breast cancer treatment, to minimize the risk of further spread.
Between six and 30 per cent of breast cancer patients can develop lymphedema, which can lead to discomfort, reduction of arm function and emotional upset.
Researchers from McMaster University wanted to compare the available treatments — compression bandages and daily lymphatic drainage massage with trained therapists.
They found no difference in the outcomes and they say that should reassure women for whom lymphatic massage is not an option.
"In the future, patients who receive or can only afford elastic sleeves and gloves should be comforted knowing that their care has not been compromised," says Dr. Ian Dayes, associate professor of oncology at McMaster's Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine.
Dayes was the principal investigator of the study, which was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The study was funded by a grant from the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance, with fellowship support from the Juravinski Cancer Centre Foundation.
The study monitored more than 100 women at six Canadian breast cancer treatment centres for a year.
One group wore elastic compression sleeve and glove garments on the arm for 12 waking hours a day. The other received an hour of lymphatic drainage massage each weekday for four weeks as well as exercise and skin care. The massage group wore compression bandages on the arm and hand day and night when they were not getting treatment.
After the month of this therapy, the massage group reduced their time in the compression bandages, wearing them for the same 12-hour period as the other group of women. Throughout the researchers took regular measurements of arm volume, arm function and quality of life.
Lymphedema, which can last indefinitely, is more likely to develop in breast cancer patients who are obese, have infection or additional surgery or radiation.