Historically, we healthcare providers have cautioned breast cancer patients to avoid weight training after a mastectomy and or axillary dissection. We often use 15 lbs as a guideline for a save weight to lift using the arm on the mastectomy side. A new study suggests this advice turns out to be misguided.
The study has been published in the August 13 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. It is a small study, but the results do challenge our current reluctance to allow lymphedema patients to weight-lift.
Kathryn Schmitz, PhD, MPH and colleagues enrolled 141 breast cancer survivors with lymphedema. The enrollees were then placed into two groups. One was assigned to a weight-lifting group who lifted twice-weekly for 13 weeks. The other group was used as a control group and did no weight-lifting.
The weight-lifting women (71) wore a custom-fitted compression garment on their affected arm during their workouts. Their arms were measured monthly to ensure any changes were noted as soon as they occurred. Each week were asked about changes in symptoms.
Both groups had the same proportion of women who experienced an increase of 5% or more in their limb swelling. However, the weight-lifting group had fewer exacerbations of their condition which required treatment from a physical therapist; 9 compared to the 19 women in the control group. The weight-lifting group also had a reduction in symptoms such as pain.
Further studies need to be done to verify their results, but I would allow motivated patients to begin weight-lifting with a slow, progressive program. They should learn proper technique. They should wear their custom-fit compression garment during all exercise sessions.
Weight-lifting has been shown to decrease bone loss which is important in these women as in all women. Having more strength can also aid in everyday activities like carrying bags of groceries or carrying children/grandchildren.
Weight Lifting in Women with Breast-Cancer–Related Lymphedema; New England Journal Medicine, Vol 361 (7):664-673, August 13, 2009; Kathryn H. Schmitz, Ph.D., M.P.H., Rehana L. Ahmed, M.D., Ph.D., Andrea Troxel, Sc.D., Andrea Cheville, M.D., Rebecca Smith, M.D., Lorita Lewis-Grant, M.P.H., M.S.W., Cathy J. Bryan, M.Ed., Catherine T. Williams-Smith, B.S., and Quincy P. Greene
Lymphedema (December 5, 2007)
ARM Technique (October 15, 2008)