In the past, breast cancer survivors were told not to lift anything even moderately heavy–not a bag of groceries, not a suitcase, not their children. They also were warned against using their arms strenuously–no scrubbing floors or raking leaves.

The thinking behind these prohibitions was that exercising the arms could increase the chance of developing or exacerbating lymphedema, a painful swelling caused by a buildup of lymph fluid. Most likely to occur in women who have had underarm lymph nodes removed or damaged by radiation as part of their cancer treatment, lymphedema can develop at any time–even years–after cancer treatment.

In 2009, Dr. Kathryn Schmitz led a study at the University of Pennsylvania that suggested such prohibitions may have been too restrictive. The authors looked at breast cancer survivors with stable lymphedema. Half the women were enrolled in a controlled weight lifting program that met twice a week for 13 weeks while the other half did not exercise at all. After one year, the women who lifted weights experienced significantly reduced symptoms of lymphedema, compared with those women who did not exercise. The weight lifters also gained upper body strength.

These results do not mean that breast cancer survivors should ignore what their doctors have told them about heavy lifting. The women in the study began by lifting only one to two pounds and added weight only under strict supervision. What the results do suggest is that controlled resistance exercise may help breast cancer survivors with lymphedema relieve the symptoms and prevent the condition from worsening.

However, Dr. Schmitz noted that weight lifting by breast cancer survivors is not a do-it-yourself proposition. It is essential, she said, for women to “work with a well-trained certified fitness professional to begin weight training. Do not try to start this kind of program on your own. Train with a physical therapist or a certified fitness professional who specializes in lymphedema or works with cancer patients.”

Our experienced staff will be happy to work with you and your doctor to develop an exercise program to improve your postcancer lifestyle, resume as much of your routine as possible and avoid the symptoms of lymphedema.

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