In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, here is my most recent article from Springfield Cares Magazine.

Breast Cancer and Weight Training
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image by pfala

When Tina McManus, a Springfield breast cancer survivor, was treated for lymphedema in her right arm she was warned against participating in many common exercises, things like tennis, golf and weight training. Until recently, this was the standard advice given to breast cancer survivors.  Exercises that utilized the arms excessively, particularly those that are weight bearing, were thought to increase the risk of lymphedema, a blockage of the lymph vessels that drain fluid from tissues throughout the body and allow immune cells to travel where they are needed.

The problem with that advice is we need to lift things every day.  Life is full of the tasks that require us move and carry heavy objects: laundry baskets, grocery bags, lap top bags and children to name a few.  Staying strong means being able to live a productive life.

Fortunately, that advice may be changing. Two recent studies may provide new guidance when it comes to breast cancer survivors’ fitness routines.

The first study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009, reported a link between weight training and a reduced risk of breast cancer related lymphedema.  In the study, 114 participants were divided into exercise and nonexercise groups. The exercise group did weight training 2 times per week for a year, while wearing a compression garment.  At the end of the year the exercising group showed significant improvements in overall strength as well as significant improvements in lymphedema symptoms.

A second study, published in 2010 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, seems to reinforce those findings.  In the JAMA study included 154 breast cancer survivors (ranging 1-5 years post unilateral breast cancer) who had at least 2 lymph nodes removed and presented with no signs of breast cancer related lymphedema.   The participants were divided into 2 groups: one group who participated in a supervised, slowly progressive resistance training program and one non exercise control group. The exercise group met with a personal trainer 2 times per week for 13 weeks and then exercised unsupervised for the remainder of the year.  At the end of the study “clinically significant” arm swelling occurred with less frequency in the exercise group than the control group.

After doing her own research and reviewing the information she found online, Tina decided that weight training should be part her new fitness program.  After participating in weight training 1-2 times a week for almost a year she says, “I do think that my lymphedema is more under control now – due to the exercise (and movement)”.

If you are breast cancer survivor here are a few tips to follow if you are interested in starting a weight training program:

  1. Always consult with your doctor. Make sure you are clear to resume normal activity before starting any type of exercise program.
  2. Wear a compression sleeve.
  3. Pay attention for any signs of swelling during the first exercise performed. If necessary, measure circumference of arm (s) before and after exercise.
  4. Start slowly, focusing on lighter weight and higher reps.
  5. If you are unsure of what exercises you should do and how to do them, consider consulting with a certified personal trainer.  Or search out programs designed specifically for cancer survivors such as the Cancer Fatigue program at Hulston Cancer Center.

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