After breast cancer surgery comes lymphedema, a complication that is painful and incurable. Lymphedema is a swelling in the arm that is disabling and painful and can rob breast cancer survivors full use of their arms. About 70% of breast cancer survivors suffer from this condition which can range from mild to severe.
To prevent the occurrence of lymphedema, women who underwent breast cancer surgery are usually advised against performing activities that require arm exercise – including carrying a baby. However, this practice has its downside – it leads to the weakening of muscles and bones of the arm. And a weakened arm can in turn lead to lymphedema. A vicious cycle for the breast cancer survivor. In addition, other conditions can also develop from to lack of exercise, namely loss of bone mass and osteoporosis, and excess weight gain.
A new study published in the latest issue New England Journal of Medicine reported that women actually need not “put their arm in a box.”
By following a carefully designed strength training program of the arm, women can build muscle power while reducing the risk of painful lymphedema flare ups by half.
According to Anna Schwartz, an affiliate professor of nursing at the University of Washington and author of Cancer Fitness
Indeed, this is encouraging for breast cancer survivors. Imagine what you can do with a strong arm – hold your grandchild, play the violin again, even use the vacuum cleaner.
The researchers followed up 141 lymphedema patients with an average age in the mid-50s. Half of the patients underwent structured weight-lifting training, half of the patients had no training. By the end of the course, those who trained were able to bench press an average of 53 pounds, representing a 29% improvement.
After a year, 14% of those who trained had recurrence of lymphedema. This may seem high but this is much lower compared to 29% recurrence rate among those who did not exercise.
It is important however for cancer survivors to work with trained instructors who can guide them the proper way of exercising without overdoing it and getting injured. Just like everything else, too much of a good thing (in this case exercise) can become bad.