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Breast Cancer Health Center

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Weight Lifting May Be OK After Breast Cancer Surgery

Study: Weight Lifting Not Associated With Increased Risk of Arm Swelling

Weight Lifting and Lymphedema continued...

Women in the weight lifting group were given a one-year membership to a local fitness center. For 13 weeks, they attended small, twice-weekly, 90-minute classes led by certified fitness professionals who taught them safe techniques for weight lifting using both free weights and machines. Weight was increased slowly for each exercise if the women had no arm symptoms including swelling, pain, tingling, or numbness.

For the remainder of the study, the women exercised on their own while being monitored for any change in symptoms.

The rest of the women weren't asked to start weight training, and they got a one-year pass to a health club only when the study ended.

Any woman who developed lymphedema was given a custom-fitted compression garment for their affected arm and was required to wear it if performing weight lifting exercises.

Some Breast Cancer Survivors Still Get Arm Swelling

Some women are going to develop lymphedema even if they follow a well-designed weight lifting program, Schmitz cautions. "A reduction in risk does not mean total prevention."

Alphonse Taghian, MD, PhD, chief of breast radiation oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, tells WebMD that he thinks the study will have "a great impact."

"This will change the way we counsel women, who are usually afraid of using their affected arm. They don't have to be afraid," says Taghian, who was not involved in the study.

That said, "women have to be careful so [lifting] won't cause harm," he says.

But another expert in cancer and exercise cautions that further study is needed before any advice to avoid lifting heavy objects can be changed.

Lee W. Jones, PhD, scientific director of the Duke Center for Cancer Survivorship at Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, tells WebMD that while the study is "a step in the right direction," the number of women studied was "small and the number of patients who actually developed lymphedema was especially small," he says.

Lymphedema: What's at Risk

Studies have shown that the one-third of breast cancer survivors who have had multiple lymph nodes removed are at greatest risk of lymphedema, with as many as 47% of these women developing the condition.

Of the 61% of women who undergo less invasive sentinel lymph node biopsies and have only one or two nodes removed, up to 7% develop lymphedema.

"This is a real-life concern that often limits their ability to work, play with their kids, even lift up all those holiday bags this season," Schmitz says.

Insurance co-pays generally cover the cost of five to 10 physical therapy sessions, Schmitz says. If you don’t have insurance, cost varies widely, but is typically in the range of $75 to $100 per session.

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