Lymphedema Management with Exercise
Being not just a breast cancer survivor, but a Cancer Exercise Specialist as well, I understand the depths and complexities of having to manage lymphedema. Having walked through the fire of breast cancer treatment, I’ve encountered firsthand the unwelcomed guest that goes by the name lymphedema.
Development of Lymphedema
It’s essential to explore why individuals with breast cancer may develop lymphedema. Surgeries like a lymph node dissection or even radiation therapy, can disrupt the lymphatic system’s normal functioning.
The removal of lymph nodes and/or damage to lymph vessels may restrict the proper drainage of lymph fluid from our extremities, leading to the development of lymphedema.
Regardless of the number of lymph nodes removed, you are considered at risk for developing lymphedema for the rest of your life.
This understanding emphasizes the importance of a tailored exercise regimen to support lymphatic circulation and manage symptoms.
utilizing exercise to combat lymphedema
Understanding how to move your body without triggering lymphedema flare-ups is a valuable skill that I personally use to empower survivors in taking back control over their lives. Engaging in a well-designed exercise routine not only contributes to overall physical health but also aids in maintaining optimal lymphatic function.
Even I, who is constantly active and moving, has experienced lymphedema flare-ups; and let me tell you they are not fun.
When my lymphedema flared, my arm felt like it weighed a ton. It took a lot of effort for me to be able to raise my arm and making a fist felt like an enormous task. However, some of the most powerful tools we have in combating lymphedema flare-ups reside within us.
Incorporating this simple yet impactful exercise became a cornerstone in my daily routine and has helped immensely in allowing my body to properly drain the extra fluid that builds up.
A study called “An Enhanced Self-Care Protocol for People Affected by Moderate to Severe Lymphedema”, highlights the effectiveness of deep breathing in promoting lymphatic drainage.
Many of us don’t know how to properly breath and this was one of the most difficult things I had to work on post-treatment. Between the tightness from radiation and the scartissue formation from surgery, taking a deep breath felt like my ribs were in a vice.
However, after spending at least 5 minutes a day – every day, on re-teaching myself how to breath, the difference is astonishing!
If you’ve been following along my journey for some time now, you probably already know how much I love stretching. However studies like “Managing Lymphedema, Increasing Range of Motion, and Quality of Life through Yoga Therapy among Breast Cancer Survivors: A Systematic Review” show just how important gentle stretching exercises are in maintaining flexibility and mitigating the impact of lymphedema.
Making sure that my muscles are loose so that fluid can move freely throughout my body is critical when combating lymphedema.
Focusing on areas like the axilla (the armpit), my pectoral muscles, my neck, and my back makes it super helpful not just to increase lymph flow, but also to target the areas that were directly impacted during surgeries and treatment to improve my range of motion!
Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs)
Controlled movements like when you do CARs enhances joint function without exacerbating swelling.
CARs became a key component of my approach to lymphedema management and the name of the game with this type of exercise is SLOW and STEADY.
This type of movement is absolutely crucial in going slow, like painfully slow. You really want to engage all of those super tiny muscles to give them some love like we do with those bigger muscles in our body.
Incorporating moderate-intensity activities proved to be a positive impact in stimulating lymphatic circulation without triggering adverse effects. Studies like “Cardiorespiratory Fitness in Women with and without Lymphedema following Breast Cancer Treatment“, show how women with lymphedema have lower cardio output than those without and that’s very concerning.
Our bodies are built with internal pumps and engaging in cardio exercises will help naturally pump the fluid within our bodies – especially our lymph!
Gentle mobility exercises are the final piece of the puzzle that acts as allies in preventing stiffness and facilitating fluid movement, fostering an improved sense of well-being.
Being able to have mobile joints equals freedom for our extremities to move without pain, which means the fluid in our bodies has the ability to move as well!
Think of it this way, if our joints hurt when we move a specific way then it can cause an inflammatory response which can create a “dam” and back-up fluid to that extremity… which is what lymphedema is!
As a Breast Cancer Survivor
and cancer exercise specialist, my journey is a testament to the astounding evidence supporting the positive impact of exercise on lymphedema management.
Being able to draw on my own experiences and scientific studies allows me to help create a narrative of empowerment and resilience. I hope that this perspective serves as a guiding light for those navigating the path of breast cancer and lymphedema management.
Remember to always speak with your medical team before engaging in any new physical activity and always work with someone who understands where you are in your diagnosis!