August 13, 2009

Breast Cancer Survivors Benefit From Lifting Weights

Breast cancer survivors can reduce the impact of post-surgery swelling by lifting weights, according to new research.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that breast cancer survivors who lift weights and exercise their upper body can reduce the swelling symptoms of lymphedema.

Lymphedema is a condition that results from treatment of breast cancer when lymph nodes are removed from under the arms.

Prior to the study, doctors had long advised breast cancer survivors to avoid lifting weights.

"How many generations of women have been told to avoid lifting heavy objects?" said Dr. Eric Winer, breast cancer chief at the Dana-Farber Cancer Center in Boston.

"Women who were doing the lifting actually had fewer arm problems because they had better muscle tone," he told the Associated Press.

"Our study challenges the historical medical recommendations for women who get lymphedema after breast cancer, and is another example of well-meaning medical advice turning out to be misguided," said lead author Kathryn Schmitz, an associate professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and a member of Penn's Abramson Cancer Center.

"Too many women have missed out on the health and fitness benefits that weight lifting provides, including building bone density. Our study shows that breast cancer survivors can safely participate in slowly progressive weight lifting and gain those benefits without any increase in their lymphedema symptoms. In fact, this type of exercise may actually help them feel better."

Schmitz' study marks the largest to date to study the impacts of weightlifting among breast cancer survivors.

Schmitz and colleagues monitored 141 breast cancer survivors who had been diagnosed with lymphedema. Half of the survivors were placed in a group that was instructed to lift weights for 90 minutes for 13 weeks. The women took part in exercise classes from trained fitness instructors in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

The women in the exercise group worked up to greater resistance and more sets of weightlifting exercise.

Next, the women continued twice-weekly unsupervised exercise for 39 weeks. They wore a custom-fitted compression garment on their affected arm during their workouts, and each week were asked about changes in symptoms.

Researchers noted that women who took part in the weekly exercise routine were less likely to see their condition worsen. There were 19 women in the control group who experienced lymphedema exacerbations that required treatment from a physical therapist, compared to 9 in the treatment group.

The study could improve the quality of life for more than 2.4 million breast cancer survivors in the US.

"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," said Schmitz.

"We did the intervention in community fitness centers deliberately, in the hope that positive results seen in our study would continue to be available to breast cancer survivors long beyond the end of the research study."

The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Research Resources.


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