Exercise and Breast Cancer: Will Weight Training Exacerbate my Lymphedema?

During and after breast cancer treatment, many patients are at risk of developing lymphedema, or tissue swelling, within their upper quadrant. A diagnosis of lymphedema, likely due to a disruption in the lymphatic system from surgery or radiation, may cause patients to be hesitant about using or moving the involved limb. There are plenty of myths floating around the cancer world about exercise and lymphedema, and it was once believed that weight training would increase lymphedema symptoms. As a result, patients with cancer were often cautioned to avoid weight training or heavy lifting activities. Over the years, researchers have delved into this topic, and have found evidence to support the safety, and potentially the benefits of resistance training in the breast cancer population.

One particular study took 141 women who had a personal history of breast cancer and current lymphedema and divided them into two groups. One group was assigned a strength training program that was performed twice a week over the course of one year. The other group was given access to a fitness center but was not guided through a strength training regimen. Lymphedema was monitored through volumetric measurements throughout the year to determine if any participants experienced increases in limb swelling.

After the one year intervention period, the researchers found no significant difference between the two groups in the proportion of participants who developed a 5% increase or greater in limb swelling. Essentially, strength training was not shown to increase the incidence of lymphedema in the group of women that went through the strength training program. Additionally, women in the weight training group increased their overall strength while decreasing the incidence of lymphedema exacerbations and the severity of arm symptoms.

Other research articles that have been published reinforce the results of this study. Performing slow, progressive, strengthening exercises for women who are at risk of developing lymphedema does not increase the likelihood that lymphedema will develop. In fact, strength training has been shown to be a safe option for improving health and fitness in the breast cancer population.

Trying to develop an individualized strength training program on your own, especially during breast cancer treatment, can be a daunting task. A physical therapist can assist you in creating a safe training program tailored to your personal goals while monitoring lymphedema status. With this guidance, your physical therapist will help you gain the confidence to train effectively and efficiently, without fear of developing or exacerbating a lymphedema diagnosis.

Schmitz KH, Ahmed RL, Troxel A, et al. (2009) Weight lifting in women with breast-cancer-related lymphedema. N Engl J Med 361:664–673
Keilani, M., Hasenoehrl, T., Neubauer, M. et al. (2016) Support Care Cancer 24: 1907. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00520-015-3068-z

Authored By: Dr. Marysa Meyer PT, DPT

Check out our latest Gearing Up with BodyGearsPT podcast for a great discussion on How to Treat the Barriers and Restore Your Movement Following a Breast Cancer Surgery.

If you liked this article please give us feedback and join the conversation. We would love to hear your suggestions on other science, anatomy, or movement topics you’d like to learn more about! Find us on FacebookInstagramSoundCloud, and Twitter @BodyGearsPT.