Weightlifting may be safe for women who fear lymphedema

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Weightlifting may not increase lymphedema risk among breast-cancer survivors, according to the results of a 1-year intervention among female survivors at risk for breast cancer-related lymphedema (BRCL).  

Although most breast-cancer survivors do not have lymphedema, they alter the use of their arms and upper-body activities for fear of developing the condition, point out Kathryn H. Schmitz, PhD, MPH, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Abramson Cancer Center, and colleagues, in their JAMA writeup (http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/early/2010/12/03/jama.2010.1837.full.pdf+html). “The findings from our trial should help clarify clinical advice to patients who have completed breast-cancer treatment regarding the safety of resuming or beginning a weightlifting program,” they state.

A total of 134 women, aged 36 to 75 years, completed the trial and 1-year follow-up measures. All had been diagnosed with breast cancer 1 to 5 years prior to study enrollment, had had at least two lymph nodes removed, and had no clinical signs of BCRL at the start of the program. Those randomized to the weightlifting intervention received a gym membership and 13 weeks of supervised instruction plus 9 months of unsupervised instruction. The control group did not exercise.

Thirteen (17%) of the 75 nonexercisers experienced new-onset BCRL, compared with only eight (11%) of the 72 weightlifters. The difference was even more marked among women who had had five or more lymph nodes removed: 11 (22%) of 49 in the control group experienced incident BCRL, compared with 3 (7%) of 45 in the intervention group. Dr. Schmitz and coauthors point out that their findings as well as previously published results involving women with BRCL suggest that all breast-cancer survivors should be able to partake in the health benefits of weightlifting.

In addition to appearing in JAMA, details of the study will be presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (www.sabcs.org), being held December 8-12, 2010.



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