Fighting lymphedema with weights

September 15, 2009 by  
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Gym2After 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

“For many years, we’ve told women not to lift anything heavier than a handbag. This is the first really well-designed study that demonstrates that women can do a lot more than we thought.”

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.

Lymphedema: life after breast cancer

January 26, 2009 by  
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The prognosis for breast cancer treatment is getting better these days. What was once a fatal disease can now be curable. In Germany, the survival rate for breast cancer is more than 80%. But while the survival rate increases, the survivors still have to battle the side effects of the treatments. One side effect that these women have to face is “lymphedema”. Lymphedema is a condition where the lymph system is damaged due to breast cancer treatment. This is characterized by the accumulation of fluid around the breast and arms because the lymph system cannot properly regulate it. This condition can restrict movement and cause a lot of pain. This can become a chronic problem and difficult to treat. The risk of lymphedema is higher if the breast cancer treatment is more aggressive. In Germany alone, an estimated 400,000 women have lymphedema after breast cancer treatment.

“Even with many women having less aggressive breast cancer treatments, around 10 to 20% will develop lymphedema,” according to Professor Peter Sawicki, Director of German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG). “We doctors still underestimate the impact on patients’ quality of life of treatment adverse effects like lymphedema. The first step to prevention is using therapies that limit the damage to the woman’s lymph system.”

Lymphedema, however, can be prevented and cancer patients can have a better quality of life. The first step to avoid this is to choose less damaging treatments. This problem can be further avoided if the patients maintain an active life. It was always believed that women have to limit the use of their arm and to reduce their activity after breast cancer treatment.

Professor Sawicki said, “While women who are developing lymphedema have to protect their arms more, the blanket warnings from the past to all women with breast cancer were never based on strong scientific evidence. In fact, trials of exercise in women with breast cancer have shown that it can improve quality of life without increasing the risk of lymphedema.”

It is also important that women should know the early warning signs of lymphedema so that it can be treated early. Women who has undergone breast cancer treatment should act early if they experience the feeling of heaviness, heat and swelling in the arm in the years after treatment. Other ways of easing the discomfort of lymphedema are:


June 11, 2008 by  
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It is a swelling or ‘edema’ caused by a build up of fluid in the lymphatic system. Secondary lymphedema is what is seen in cancer patients after surgery to remove or dissect the lymph nodes in the arm, groin or pelvis. Normally the lymphatic system and the fluid of this system move to flight infection. Once the lymph nodes are removed fluid collects in the spaces between cell tissues. The buildup of fluid causes not only swelling but inflammation, pain and thickening of the skin in the area affected.

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NOTE: The contents in this blog are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or a substitute for professional care. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before making changes to any existing treatment or program. Some of the information presented in this blog may already be out of date.