A new pilot program at Wollongong Hospital aims to halve the number of breast cancer patients who go on to develop lymphoedema.
The Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District is one of 13 LHDs across the state to this month launch the NSW Health program, Early Intervention and Prevention of Chronic Lymphoedema. The pilot will also run at Shoalhaven Hospital.
Wollongong Hospital physiotherapist Lesley Bertolla is one of 20 allied health professionals across the state who've undergone specialist training in lymphoedema therapy to run the pilot.
She said it aimed to screen and assess people - mainly women - who had undergone breast cancer surgery for the early stages of the condition.
"Lymphoedema is an accumulation of excess fluid in a body part, typically an arm or leg, which causes swelling," Mrs Bertolla said.
"People can suffer from either primary lymphoedema, due to congenital or physical changes in the lymphatic system, or secondary lymphoedema, due to some sort of intervention such as surgery or infection.
"Typically it develops in people who've had surgery for breast cancer or melanoma, who've had lymph nodes removed. This disrupts the lymphatic flow and leads to swelling in the limbs."
Mrs Bertolla said treatment for the often painful condition usually included exercise, and bandaging or compression garments.
The pilot aims to assess and monitor up to 2500 people yearly who undergo surgery within the LHDs.
"The model of care has always been a two-year surveillance program post breast surgery," she said.
"Participants in the pilot program will also be seen before they start treatment such as chemotherapy, or undergo surgery.
"If a patient goes on to develop lymphoedema it has a huge impact both physically and financially.
"If we can put in place this early detection program we can start early intervention to prevent the lymphoedema developing into a chronic condition."
Twenty-five SOZO body composition analyser machines will be used as part of the pilot, to support the detection and treatment of the early stages of the condition.
NSW Chief Allied Health Officer, Andrew Davison, said the pilot would run until 2024. It was funded by the Commonwealth Government, with the LHDs funding the allied health clinicians.
"Conservative estimates are that as many as 500 patients a year who have had breast surgery in NSW public hospitals will develop lymphoedema," Mr Davison said. "We are hoping to reduce that by more than half."
There will also be a comprehensive evaluation of the pilot to identify the ongoing benefits and value of the model of care to patients.
Mrs Bertolla said: "It's extremely rewarding to be helping these patients, particularly if we can intervene early to prevent the long-term effects of what can be a very debilitating condition".
NSW Health developed the model of care in consultation with the Australasian Lymphology Association and Macquarie University.