Purpose: Breast cancer treatment-related lymphedema (BCRL) evaluation is frequently performed using portable measures of limb volume and bioimpedance asymmetry. Here quantitative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is applied to evaluate deep and superficial tissue impairment, in both surgical and contralateral quadrants, to test the hypothesis that BCRL impairment is frequently bilateral and extends beyond regions commonly evaluated with portable external devices.
Methods: 3-T MRI was applied to investigate BCRL topographical impairment. Female BCRL (n = 33; age = 54.1 ± 11.2 years; stage = 1.5 ± 0.8) and healthy (n = 33; age = 49.4 ± 11.0 years) participants underwent quantitative upper limb MRI relaxometry (T2), bioimpedance asymmetry, arm volume asymmetry, and physical evaluation. Parametric tests were applied to evaluate study measurements (i) between BCRL and healthy participants, (ii) between surgical and contralateral limbs, and (iii) in relation to clinical indicators of disease severity. Two-sided p-value < 0.05 was required for significance.
Results: Bioimpedance asymmetry was significantly correlated with MRI-measured water relaxation (T2) in superficial tissue. Deep muscle (T2 = 37.6 ± 3.5 ms) and superficial tissue (T2 = 49.8 ± 13.2 ms) relaxation times were symmetric in healthy participants. In the surgical limbs of BCRL participants, deep muscle (T2 = 40.5 ± 4.9 ms) and superficial tissue (T2 = 56.0 ± 14.8 ms) relaxation times were elevated compared to healthy participants, consistent with an edematous micro-environment. This elevation was also observed in contralateral limbs of BCRL participants (deep muscle T2 = 40.3 ± 5.7 ms; superficial T2 = 56.6 ± 13.8 ms).
Conclusions: Regional MRI measures substantiate a growing literature speculating that superficial and deep tissue, in surgical and contralateral quadrants, is affected in BCRL. The implications of these findings in the context of titrating treatment regimens and understanding malignancy recurrence are discussed.