Weight lifting has generally been proscribed for women with breast-cancer-related lymphedema, preventing them from obtaining the well-established health benefits of weight lifting, including increases in bone density.
We performed a randomized, controlled trial of twice-weekly progressive weight lifting involving 141 breast-cancer survivors with stable lymphedema of the arm. The primary outcome was the change in arm and hand swelling at 1 year, as measured through displaced water volume of the affected and unaffected limbs. Secondary outcomes included the incidence of exacerbations of lymphedema, number and severity of lymphedema symptoms, and muscle strength. Participants were required to wear a well-fitted compression garment while weight lifting.
The proportion of women who had an increase of 5% or more in limb swelling was similar in the weight-lifting group (11%) and the control group (12%) (cumulative incidence ratio, 1.00; 95% confidence interval, 0.88 to 1.13). As compared with the control group, the weight-lifting group had greater improvements in self-reported severity of lymphedema symptoms (P=0.03) and upper- and lower-body strength (P<0.001 for both comparisons) and a lower incidence of lymphedema exacerbations as assessed by a certified lymphedema specialist (14% vs. 29%, P=0.04). There were no serious adverse events related to the intervention.
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.
From our own companies’ experience, women need to keep the muscles in the arm toned. We have seen a number of women who lost all function in the arm because they were told to protect the arm and not use it. This lead to the atrophying of muscles and a lack of function. We encourage women to use the arms and keep them from wasting away.