If you are managing lymphedema after a breast cancer diagnosis you may be wondering whether it’s safe to exercise. In the past some doctors worried that exercise could make lymphedema worse. But current research no longer supports this.

Research shows that exercise can help improve lymphedema because movement aids in pushing lymph fluid through the lymphatic system. This in turn helps reduce swelling associated with lymphedema.

“I have found that the more exercise, the less swelling I have,” said Abbe Jacobson, Outreach Manager at Team Survivor Northwest. Jacobson had surgery 15 years ago for early stage ovarian cancer and has had occasional swelling in the groin where she had lymph nodes removed. She said she generally has had little trouble over the years as long as she gets herself out moving every day.

“There are multiple benefits of exercise as a survivor,” Jacobson said. “And improvements to my lymphedema is definitely one of them.” The most crucial consideration for anyone who wants to exercise with lymphedema is to start out slowly and gently. Walking is appropriate for nearly anyone.

Starting out slowly allows for observation of symptoms associated with lymphedema. It may be that walking causes no flares while resistance training – while ultimately considered safe if tailored to specific needs  – may need to be approached with caution.

“ Just as there is no “one size fits all” approach to breast cancer treatment, the same holds true for exercise. Every person’s body is different,” according to a report from BreastCancer.org. “Strength training with light weights is good for many women, but some may find it too painful or too hard on the arm. In those cases, other forms of gentler exercise may be recommended.”

Anyone wanting to exercise who is managing lymphedema should first seek clearance from their oncologist, physician or lymphedema therapist.

Also consider seeking assistance from someone who has training or expertise in lymphedema in order to tailor the exercise to suit your specific needs. An exercise program should incorporate stretching and aerobic exercises as well as resistance training.

Further Resources on Lymphedema

For further information on exercising with lymphedema, check out this additional reading:

Lymphedema and Exercise: http://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/lymphedema/exercise

National Lymphedema Network’s Position Statement of Exercise: https://www.lymphnet.org/pdfDocs/nlnexercise.pdf


Careful Weight Lifting Doesn’t Increase Lymphedema Risk: http://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/20101208


Lymphedema and Exercise FAQs: https://www.oncolink.org/support/side-effects/lymphedema/lymphedema-what-you-need-to-know/lymphedema-and-exercise-faqs


Northwest Lymphedema Center (local organization providing information, resources and patient self-care education): http://www.nwlymphedemacenter.org/

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