For many years, breast cancer survivors have been given a laundry list of warnings to heed post-breast cancer treatment. These encompass but are not limited to not lifting anything over 5 pounds and avoiding manicures, saunas and even gardening. Why you might ask? These types of activities were thought to lead to lymphedema, causing swelling and hardening of the arm.
How does lymphedema develop from breast cancer? Usually, the removal of lymph nodes, which is done during surgery to check and see if the cancer has spread, can cause scarring which then causes fluid to accumulate, thus overloading the lymphatic system.
In most recent years, breast cancer surgeries are removing fewer lymph nodes, usually only the ones closest to the tumor itself (called sentinel node biopsy). This has helped decrease the chance of developing lymphedema, although it should be noted, that it is still possible.
Over the last decade, many of the “old wives’ tales’ that were associated with breast cancer-related lymphedema have shown to actually not increase the risk of developing lymphedema after all.
A 2016 study1 investigated many of the previously known warnings and found that little data exists to support these warnings.
This biggest misnomer is to limit physical activity/exercise. Recent research2 has shown that slow, progressive weight training can actually be beneficial to decreasing the signs and symptoms and the development of lymphedema. Exercise has many positive attributes beyond this, improving fatigue, anxiety, depression, sleep, bone health, and our overall cardiovascular health.
As for the other warnings, i.e., not to lift anything heavy, reduce blood pressure readings, and limit blood draws on the affected side/arm, it’s important to keep safety in mind. Yes, you can go and get a manicure, but decline getting your cuticles cut. Yes, you can visit a sauna, but limit the time you spend in said sauna. Yes, gardening is an approved activity, but wear gloves while doing so.
Many of the activities that people love doing pre-breast cancer can still be done post-breast cancer, but the key is to be smart and do it safely. Making minor adjustments to the activities we love can still fulfill our need/want of the activity while keeping us safe and healthy.