lymphedema, breast cancer lymphedema, lymphedema weight lifting
Jose Luis Magana/AP
Lymphedema specialist Johanna Murphy, left, shows breast cancer survivor Anne Holman an
exercise to treat her lymphedema at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., Tuesday,
Dec. 23, 2008.

Weight Lifting Said to Help Breast Cancer Survivors With Lymphedema

August 17, 2009 07:00 AM
by Liz Colville
According to a new study, the roughly 70 percent of breast cancer patients who suffer from lymphedema after surgery can benefit from weight lifting.

Lifting Weights Helps Reduce Swelling

A study published in the Aug. 13 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) suggests that the "no heavy lifting" policy many people must follow after surgery might not apply to women experiencing lymphedema, Health Magazine writer Denise Mann reports for CNN.

The condition, which occurs "in as many as 70 percent of women who have breast cancer surgery," causes swelling in the arms resulting from removal of lymph nodes as part of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

The fluid contained in those nodes—lymph—can "build up in the affected limb." Normal treatment involves wearing "a compression sleeve and glove during waking hours," Mann adds.

But the NEJM study, authored by Kathryn Schmitz, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the school's Abramson Cancer Center, indicates that "weight lifting increased muscle strength, decreased the number and severity of arm and hand symptoms, and reduced lymphedema exacerbations," Mann writes.

In an abstract of the study on the NEJM Web site, the authors explain that 114 breast cancer survivors with "stable lymphedema of the arm" were asked to perform "twice-weekly progressive weight lifting." The women wore a compression sleeve while performing the exercises.

Compared with the control group, the weight-lifting group "had greater improvements in self-reported severity of lymphedema symptoms," as well as improved upper- and lower-body strength and "a lower incidence of lymphedema exacerbations as assessed by a certified lymphedema specialist."

By "progressive," the authors are referring to the gradual addition of weight as the women felt more comfortable. "The weight-lifting exercises involved low weights, and one to three new exercises were added at each session," Mann explains. "The number of sets increased from two to three, with 10 reps in each set, during the first five weeks. If the women felt OK, more weight was added."

Background: What is Lymphedema?

Although lymphedema affects breast cancer patients who have had lymph nodes removed, it is a broader condition that refers to swelling in the arms or legs, the Mayo Clinic Web site explains. "The swelling occurs when a blockage in your lymphatic system prevents the lymph fluid in your arm or leg from draining adequately. As the fluid accumulates, the swelling continues."

Learn more about lymphedema
, including symptoms, causes, complications and treatment options, from the Mayo Clinic's article on the condition.

Reference: Web Guide to Breast Cancer; "Physical Activity and the Cancer Patient"

FindingDulcinea's Web Guide to Breast Cancer features reputable Web resources on general information, causes, diagnosis, treatment and research on the disease. You'll also find links to online forums and other helpful resources for connecting with others and coping with the disease.
The American Cancer Society's article "Physical Activity and the Cancer Patient" lists several known benefits of physical activity while battling or recovering from cancer, and provides well-researched tips and advice for those looking to exercise as part of their cancer recovery program. The article includes sections on fatigue caused by cancer and lists precautions.

Related Topic: Exercise benefits for leukemia patients

Another study released this week shows that exercise can help leukemia patients in the midst of treatment, HealthDay News reported. Specifically, it was shown that "fatigue and depression" could be combated with exercise routines including aerobic workouts, strength training, core exercises and stretching.

The study, conducted by Claudio Battaglini, an assistant professor of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had 10 leukemia patients in the "induction phase" of treatment for the disease go through three- to five-week exercise routines while at the hospital. "We found that the patients experienced significant reduction in total fatigue and depression scores, as well as improved cardiorespiratory endurance and maintenance of muscular endurance," Battaglini said in a news release.

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