Women who develop lymphedema after breast cancer surgery have traditionally been counseled by their doctors to avoid lifting heavy objects. However, a new research finding turns that wisdom on its head.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found breast cancer survivors who participated in weight lifting training experienced reduced lymphedema symptoms, increase muscle strength and reduced the incidence of lymphedema exacerbations.
"If your lymph nodes are removed because of breast cancer treatment, you suffer impairment in your ability to respond to infection, trauma, injury, and inflammation. Exercise improves the body's response to those four things," said lead researcher Kathryn H. Schmitz, PhD, MPH, from the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania.
This is welcome news for the 2.5 million breast cancer survivors, many of whom have been discouraged from weight-lifting exercise because of concerns it may bring on lymphedema or worsen the swelling they already have. As a consequence, many women worry everyday activities such as picking up their kids or carting around grocery bags might be harmful.
Lymphedema is swelling due to the buildup of lymph fluid in the limbs and it can occur at any time after treatment for breast cancer—even many years later. Symptoms include a feeling of tightness in the arm or hand on the same side that was treated for breast cancer, leathery skin texture, heaviness, pain, pitting and difficulty writing.
For the study, Schmitz and her colleagues recruited 141 women with stable lymphedema and a history of breast cancer. Half were assigned to a controlled, weight-lifting exercise program that met twice weekly for 90 minutes over 13 weeks. The women were required to wear a custom-fit compression sleeve on the affected arm during exercise and started with low-weight resistance (about 1 to 2 pounds). They were closely monitored for changes in the affected arm. The amount of weight they lifted was increased gradually if the lymphedema symptoms did not worsen.