Lymphoedema is a well-known concern for cancer survivors. A crucial issue in lymphoedema is that we cannot predict who will be affected, and onset can occur many years after initial cancer treatment. The variability of time between cancer treatment and lymphoedema onset is an unexplained mystery. Retrospective cohort studies have investigated the risk factors for lymphoedema development, with extensive surgery and the combination of radiation and surgery identified as common high-risk factors. However, these studies could not predict lymphoedema risk in each individual patient in the early stages, nor could they explain the timing of onset. The study of anatomy is one promising tool to help shed light on the pathophysiology of lymphoedema. While the lymphatic system is the area least investigated in the field of anatomical science, some studies have described anatomical changes in the lymphatic system after lymph node dissection. Clinical imaging studies in lymphangiography, lymphoscintigraphy and indocyanine green (ICG) fluorescent lymphography have reported post-operative anatomical changes in the lymphatic system, including dermal backflow, lymphangiogenesis and creation of alternative pathways via the deep and torso lymphatics, demonstrating that such dynamic anatomical changes contribute to the maintenance of lymphatic drainage pathways. This article presents a descriptive review of the anatomical and imaging studies of the lymphatic system in the normal and post-operative conditions and attempts to answer the questions of why some people develop lymphoedema after cancer and some do not, and what causes the variability in lymphoedema onset timing.
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited