Breast cancer survivors have been told for years that lifting anything heavy could worsen painful arm swelling. New research suggests just the opposite is true.
The study found that slowly building strength with upper-body weightlifting actually helps relieve some of the arm and hand swelling that affects up to a quarter of breast cancer survivors, CTV.ca reports.
"It's just a wonderful program," said Jackie Amarnek, 77, of King of Prussia, who still works out regularly. "My arm looks perfectly normal now; you'd never know there's anything wrong."
The study, published in today's New England Journal of Medicine, is the largest and most rigorous to show clear-cut benefits - and no risks - to slow, progressive strength training for women with breast-cancer-related lymphedema, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
The study included 141 women diagnosed with lymphoedema after surgery for breast cancer. Half continued their usual exercise habits during the study, while the other half attended weight-training classes at community gyms for 13 weeks. They wore custom-fitted compression bandages on their affected arm while exercising and gradually increased their weights and repetitions. After the classes ended, they continued doing upper- and lower-body weight training on their own twice a week for the rest of the year.
Overall, fewer women in the weight-training group had a flare-up of their lymphoedema during the study (14 percent, compared with 29 percent). Women who lifted weights also had more improvement in their lymphoedema symptoms and in their upper- and lower-body strength.
The researchers don't yet know why weight training might improve lymphoedema, but they have a few ideas. Other studies show that exercise may aid the flow of lymph fluid. Also, improved muscle strength might help an affected arm cope with the strain of daily activities, thereby reducing pain and other symptoms, guardian.co.uk reports.