Text Breast CancerBreast cancer survivors and weight lifting, seems like a really odd link, doesn’t it? However a latest study from the University of Pennsylvania claims that a gradual, progressive weight-lifting program may aid in relieving the symptoms of lymphedema in some breast cancer survivors.

These findings have apparently come as a relief to more than 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. Many of them have been discouraged form weight-lifting exercise due to concerns it may bring on lymphedema or aggravate the swelling they already have.

Even after many years, lymphedema or swelling due to the buildup of the lymph fluid can happen at any time after treatment for breast cancer. Tightness is experienced in the arm or hand on the same side that was treated for breast cancer, skin texture becomes leathery while pain, pitting and difficulty in writing are some of the symptoms. This study claims that keeping away from exercises may actually be harmful to women.

Lead researcher Kathryn H. Schmitz, PhD, MPH, from the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania commented “If your lymph nodes are removed because of breast cancer treatment, you suffer impairment in your ability to respond to infection, trauma, injury, and inflammation. Exercise improves the body’s response to those 4 things.”

For the study, 141 women with stable lymphedema and a history of breast cancer were enrolled by Schmitz and her colleagues. Half of the subjects met for a controlled program and the other half for a weight-lifting exercise program twice a week for over 13 weeks for 90mins. The women began with low-weight resistance (approximately 1 to 2 pounds) and were required to wear a custom-fitted compression sleeve on the affected arm. They were strongly screened for changes in the affected arm. If the lymphedema symptoms did not aggravate, the amount of weight they lifted was increased gradually.

Majority of women in the weight-lifting group had apparently increased their strength and decreased symptoms of lymphedema, during the study. In both the groups the number of women who saw their swellings increase were claimed to be almost the same with 11% in the weight-lifting group and 12% in the control group.

Schmitz mentioned “Our study shows that participating in a safe, structured weight-lifting routine can help women with lymphedema take control of their symptoms and reap the many rewards that resistance training has on their overall health as they begin life as a cancer survivor.”

But the experts are concerned of the possibility that women may go out on their own and start lifting weight. This could be extremely harmful to them as safety while exercising also seems to be very important.

Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, American Cancer Society, Director, Nutrition and Physical Activity commented “This study demonstrates the importance of exercise after cancer treatment, and it also highlights the importance of doing it safely. Women should talk to their doctor before starting any exercise program and start slowly.”

The significance of beginning slowly and using a proper form of the exercise is emphasized by Schmitz.

Schmitz explained “Work with a well-trained certified fitness professional to begin weight training. Do not try to start this kind of program on your own. Your trainer should start you with very light weights. If you do that for a week and you aren’t seeing any problems, increase your resistance, but do it in very small increments. Train with a physical therapist or a certified fitness professional who specializes in lymphedema or working with cancer patients.”

Health and fitness professionals who are interested in working with cancer survivors can also take advantage of a a new certification announced by American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) which is specifically designed for them in February 2009. This specialty certification will apparently now enable cancer patients and survivors to find fitness professionals who will assist them to exercise carefully and attain their exercise goals while they are undergoing treatment and after they have finished the treatment.

Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, American Cancer Society, Director, Nutrition and Physical Activity commented “Previously, there were no nationwide quality standards for fitness professionals working with cancer survivors. We hope this certification will help point cancer patients to people and organizations sensitive to their needs.”

Adding to regular exercise, it is extremely vital to eat correctly and properly experts claim. Doyle suggests that 5 or more servings of vegetables and fruits every day should be aimed at by survivors. Also whole grain foods instead of white flour and sugars should be chosen. Also meats that are high in fat should be limited. Doyle is of the opinion that one of the most important goals a cancer survivor can set post-treatment is to live a healthy lifestyle.

This study was conducted in partnership with YMCAs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It was published in the August issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.