Risk of lymphedema for breast cancer survivors
Weight training exercises may reduce symptoms of lymphedema
In the past, women who have had lymph nodes removed underneath the arm were advised to avoid repeated motions or lifting items over 15 pounds with that arm. This was to prevent painful build-up of fluid, called lymphedema. Radiation treatment can also cause injury to the lymph system and result in lymphedema.
A study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine asked whether weight training could affect hand and arm swelling in women who have a history of breast cancer and a previous diagnosis of lymphedema. The study randomized women into two groups. The treatment group took part in a whole-body weight training program twice a week over one year. The control group was asked to not change their current level of exercise over the same year.
When asked to report on how severe their symptoms of lymphedema were, women participating in the training program reported fewer or less severe symptoms. The study also showed no major increases in swelling of the arm among the treatment group.
How to prevent lymphedema
Lymphedema is easier to prevent compared to treating it.
Ways to prevent developing lymphedema
- Avoid anything that may be tight on the affected area such as clothing cuffs, jewelry, bandages or stockings
- Not have your blood pressure taken on the affected arm
- Not use heat on or draw blood from the affected body part
It is often recommended that patients wear compression garments on the affected area to help prevent fluid build-up. In the study mentioned above, women in both groups wore custom-fitted compression garments when they exercised.
Who may be at risk of lymphedema?
Lymphedema can also affect patients with other types of cancer. Any patient who has had lymph nodes removed or had treatments that injured the lymph system could have swelling in that area. Sometimes a tumor could press on or block the lymph channels.
Seek treatment for lymphedema
Those suffering from lymphedema should ask their doctor about ways to treat their symptoms. University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics has a lymphedema clinic that provides services for outpatients. Call the Cancer Resource Center, 1-800-237-1225, for more information on how to make an appointment with a lymphedema therapist.