Purpose: Breast cancer treatment-related lymphedema (BCRL) is a common co-morbidity of breast cancer therapies, yet factors that contribute to BCRL progression remain incompletely characterized. We investigated whether magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) measures of subcutaneous adipose tissue were uniquely elevated in women with BCRL.
Methods: MRI at 3.0 T of upper extremity and torso anatomy, fat and muscle tissue composition, and T2 relaxometry were applied in left and right axillae of healthy control (n = 24) and symptomatic BCRL (n = 22) participants to test the primary hypothesis that fat-to-muscle volume fraction is elevated in symptomatic BCRL relative to healthy participants, and the secondary hypothesis that fat-to-muscle volume fraction is correlated with MR relaxometry of affected tissues and BCRL stage (significance criterion: two-sided p < 0.05).
Results: Fat-to-muscle volume fraction in healthy participants was symmetric in the right and left sides (p = 0.51); in BCRL participants matched for age, sex, and BMI, fat-to-muscle volume fraction was elevated on the affected side (fraction = 0.732 ± 0.184) versus right and left side in controls (fraction = 0.545 ± 0.221, p < 0.001). Fat-to-muscle volume fraction directly correlated with muscle T2 (p = 0.046) and increased with increasing level of BCRL stage (p = 0.041).
Conclusion: Adiposity quantified by MRI is elevated in the affected upper extremity of women with BCRL and may provide a surrogate marker of condition onset or severity.