Weight Lifting May Help Breast Cancer Survivors

In the past, physicians feared that upper body physical activity following breast cancer treatment put women at higher risk for lymphedema, a condition that causes swelling in the arm.

Fortunately, numerous studies have put this fear to rest.

What is Lymphedema?

The lymphatic system is part of our body's immune system and helps us fight infections. It's comprised of a network of lymph nodes and vessels that carry lymph fluid throughout the body. In people with cancer, tumor cells can spread from the original site to other parts of the body through the lymph system. Cancer treatment becomes much more difficult after cancer has metastasized.

When a woman has surgery for breast cancer, her physician will remove at least one lymph node from the underarm area to see if the cancer has spread. Removing lymph nodes can change the way lymph fluid flows through the body, causing it to accumulate where surgery disrupts its normal flow. This can cause the arm to swell, or lymphedema (edema means swelling). It's a common complication following breast cancer treatment. Women with lymphedema may also experience numbness, discomfort or infection.

According to the American Cancer Society, every person treated for cancer who has lymph nodes removed has a lifetime risk for developing lymphedema.

Why Weight Lift?

Although we've known for a long time that aerobic exercise improves quality of life in cancer survivors, physicians often cautioned women against performing upper body strength exercises or resistance training following treatment for breast cancer. Over the past several years, numerous studies have shown that resistance training does not increase the risk for, or exacerbate the symptoms of, lymphedema.

The news gets even better.

Studies have also shown that women who perform weight lifting exercises report a greater improvement in the severity of lymphedema symptoms, including more upper body strength and lower incidence of lymphedema exacerbation. Increases in upper body strength and increases in lean muscle mass both correlate with improvement in physical and psychosocial quality of life scores. Women report higher quality of life in their physical functioning, general health, vitality and mental health.

These findings have prompted the medical community to re-evaluate clinical guidelines regarding recommendations for upper body resistance exercises following breast cancer treatment.

If you've had surgery or radiation treatment for breast cancer, ask your physician when it's safe for you to begin upper body strength training.