Lymphedema is a potential side effect of breast cancer surgery and radiation therapy that can appear in some people during the months or even years after treatment ends. Besides the obvious benefits for health and wellbeing, exercise helps minimize and manage lymphedema in a few special ways: Muscle movements provide the pumping action that moves lymph through the lymphatic system, and deep breathing stimulates lymph flow.
Although there’s no way to know for sure whether you’ll develop lymphedema after breast cancer, you can help yourself by learning more about it. Know your risk factors, take steps to reduce your risk, and be aware of early symptoms. Left untreated, lymphedema can worsen and cause severe swelling and permanent changes to the tissues under the skin, such as thickening and scarring.
Several research studies have found that a exercise program gradually increasing — meaning you start gently and intensify slowly over time — is not likely to increase the risk of lymphedema.
Typically, an exercise plan for anyone at risk for or diagnosed with lymphedema includes some combination of:
- flexibility and stretching exercises
- strength training
- aerobic exercise that uses the upper body, helping with weight loss and encouraging deep breathing, which in turn helps lymph move along
Fortunately, we can use common-sense to adapt a Pilates program for those with and at risk of lymphedema. Remember that anyone recovering from breast cancer surgery must have a doctor’s clearance to start exercising. Be sure that lymphedema is stable before beginning or continuing an exercise program. Women with lymphedema should wear compression garments while and for at least an hour following exercise.
Don’t be afraid to exercise if you have lymphedema. Read all you can on the condition and what exercises are best suited. If possible, attend a specialist class, such as Pink Ribbon Pilates or yoga classes for breast cancer. We can all enjoy the health and quality-of-life benefits of exercise, even if we have or at risk of lymphedema by applying education, and a safe, common sense approach.
A wonderful resource to learn about lymphedema is at Step Up, Speak Out a website dedicated to all information relating to lymphedema and breast cancer: