For many years, breast cancer survivors have been told not to lift anything heavier than a handbag because of the risk of lymphedema (swelling / edema caused by accumulation of lymphatic fluid in the tissues of the body’s surface). This accumulation of lymphatic fluid (lymph) arises as a consequence of changes in the lymphatic system due to surgery and / or radiotherapy to the lymph nodes in the axilla and surrounding areas.
In this regard, it is recommended that women should ask for help with shopping bags, should avoid lifting or carrying children, and should only engage in exercise modalities such as walking, swimming and other light aerobic activities – these are the general recommendations. However, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009 (see reference below) has shown that lifting weights can be a substantial aid to women with or at risk of developing arm lymphedema.
In this study the researchers recruited 141 breast cancer survivors with stable arm lymphedema and divided the sample into two groups – one group did strength training and the other did not change their exercise routine. These were the conclusions of the authors of the study: “in breast-cancer survivors with lymphedema, slowly progressive weight lifting had no significant effect on limb swelling and resulted in a decreased incidence of exacerbations of lymphedema, reduced symptoms, and increased strength.”
So, the main question here is not whether women who suffer from this condition may or may not lift weights but HOW they should do it to improve their condition. Again, the critical component is the program design, and this is one of our distinctive competencies at The Strength Clinic.
Schmitz KH, Ahmed RL, Troxel A, Cheville A, Smith R, Lewis-Grant L, Bryan CJ, Williams-Smith CT, Greene QP. Weight lifting in women with breast-cancer-related lymphedema. N Engl J Med. 2009 Aug 13;361(7):664-73. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa0810118. PubMed PMID: 19675330.