Weight Lifting May Be OK After Breast Cancer

Study: Weight Lifting May Not Worsen Lymphedema in Breast Cancer Survivors

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 12, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 12, 2009 -- Weight lifting may be gaining strength as an option for breast cancer survivors with swelling in their arms.

A new study challenges the belief that breast cancer patients with lymphedema in their arms should avoid weight lifting.

Lymphedema is fluid buildup that causes swelling. In breast cancer patients, it can be a lasting side effect of removing lymph nodes during breast cancer surgery.

To avoid making lymphedema worse, heavy lifting of any kind is typically discouraged for breast cancer survivors with lymphedema.

But the new study, published in the Aug. 13 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine, shows that weight lifting may actually help breast cancer survivors with lymphedema.

The study included 141 U.S. women who had completed breast cancer treatment.

Half of the women got a free membership to a local health club and got trained in weight lifting by trainers who were knowledgeable about lymphedema.

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

The women in the weight lifting group worked out twice a week at their health clubs. They did weight lifting exercises that target the upper and lower body, as well as stretching, a cardio warm-up, and exercises for their abdominal and back muscles.

The women wore custom-fitted compression garments on their affected arm. Their trainers made sure the weight lifting exercises were challenging but not too hard.

Arm measurements taken throughout the study showed that women in the weight lifting group weren't more likely than women in the comparison group to have their affected arm swell by 5% or more.

In fact, the women in the weight lifting group reported greater improvement in their lymphedema symptoms -- and of course, they got stronger, too.

"These findings support the potential benefits of a slowly progressive weight-lifting program in women with breast cancer-related lymphedema, in conjunction with appropriate use of compression garments and close monitoring for arm and hand swelling," write the researchers, who included Kathryn Schmitz, PhD, MPH, of the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center.

The study "provides strong reassurance regarding the safety of appropriately supervised weight training in women with a history of breast cancer and lymphedema," states an editorial also published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The editorial calls for more research, including a cost-savings analysis and ways to get the word out about safe weight lifting programs for breast cancer patients with lymphedema.