Illustration © Pam Stephan
When my lymph nodes were sampled during my lumpectomy, my left arm could not process the lymphatic fluid as well. My surgeon sent me home saying, "No lifting with that arm - no heavy purse on that shoulder - no exercising with it - no blood pressure cuffs over there - no needles for anything in that arm! You could develop a case of lymphedema. Go home and take it easy." That was 7 years ago, and things sure have changed!
Several new studies, including one done in Sweden and one published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that when breast cancer patients followed a program of gentle weight lifting, they had less problems with arm lymphedema - a condition that results in swelling and discomfort, and is often hard to remedy. This surprised the researchers, who were expecting that even gentle exercise would cause, not help, with lymphedema.
Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, who teaches behavioral science at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, wrote an editorial stating that recommendations for rehabilitation should be formulated in place of the traditional restrictions. “Give them the rehab and the exercise training they need after their treatment.” This attitude agrees with the old adage that you should "use it or lose it" which can apply to many health scenarios, such as recovery from back surgery or heart attack, and now it can be applied to arm lymphedema.
Now, don't run right out to your local gym and head for the weights room! Discuss your exercise plans with your doctor, and ask about rehabilitation clinics or physical therapists that specialize in lymphedema. You should start out with small free weights, and if no swelling occurs, move up gradually to heavier weights. A therapist or exercise coach can monitor you for swelling or other problems. If you already have problems with arm lymphedma, see a lymphedema massage therapist and learn how massage and using a compression sleeve can help get that swelling down.
Here are some easy arm exercises to help with lymphedema. If you're looking for a beneficial overall body workout that include arm exercise, try pole walking. And if you're having trouble recovering shoulder motion after breast surgery, try these arm exercises for strength and flexibility.
Have you experienced arm lymphedema? If you tried exercise as part of your recovery, leave a comment below and let me know how well it worked for you!