Can You Lift Away Lymphedema?

Generally speaking, when a woman undergoes a mastectomy (the surgical removal of one or both breasts), some of her under-arm lymph nodes are removed as well. Lymph nodes are responsible for filtering and draining fluid from various parts of our body; thus, removing them can cause a “back up” of lymph fluid, a condition also known as lymphedema. When it comes to post-mastectomy lymphedema, this means excess fluid and swelling of the arm(s) on the side of the affected breast(s).

Thankfully, not all women who undergo mastectomies develop lymphedema, but it is more common in women who have lymph nodes removed AND have radiation therapy. Women who do develop lymphedema will not all develop it to the same severity. Lymphedema can take various forms, from mild and temporary to acute and long lasting. Some women will have discomfort from lymphedema, others won’t.

There are a lot of unknown variables to this equation, but women dealing with breast cancer and lymphedema in this region have a new and extremely promising resource available to them. Virtua Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation's lymphedema/oncology rehabilitation program, called “Strength after Breast Cancer,” is using cutting-edge research to prevent and treat lymphedema. Patients in the program work with a team of cancer-certified fitness trainers at Virtua’s Fitness Centers, as well as certified lymphedema therapists Kathy Liddie (an occupational therapist) and Michelle Peshick (a physical therapist). 

“Thanks to a recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, we now know that a slowly progressive and carefully monitored weight-lifting program can reduce the risk or control arm swelling after mastectomy,” says Liddie. By adopting and implementing the findings of Penn’s PAL (Physical Activity and Lymphedema) Trial, Virtua has become one of only two lymphedema rehab programs in the greater Philadelphia/southern New Jersey region that offers this particular approach.

In the years preceding the breakthrough study, women often were cautioned against ever using the arm again for any lifting. Today, it can be added to the list of common ways to reduce the risk of post-surgical lymphedema, along with using specially fitted compression garments (when needed) and being careful NOT to have blood drawn or a blood pressure cuff applied to the affected arm.

In her work as a certified lymphedema therapist, Liddie has seen remarkable results in patients who receive this special treatment for lymphedema. “Once we start to get the fluid moving out of the arm, our patients see a big change,” she says. “Patients often see improvement in the little things, like reaching or working overhead, fastening and unfastening their bras, or being able to pull shirts over their heads – these small victories add up to a lot of excitement and relief.” 

Liddie cautions, however, that this new program won’t be for everyone: “We conduct a thorough screening to make sure that it’s safe to work out.”

Strength After Breast Cancer

For those who are looking to understand more about the program and lymphedema, the Virtua Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation "Strength After Breast Cancer" program offers monthly educational sessions for all interested women and their loved ones.

In addition, an excerpt of the Breast Cancer Handbook is available for you to read to answer questions about lymphedema, including risks and symptoms. 

For entry into the Strength After Breast Cancer program (beginning with a free screening by a Certified Lymphedema Therapist) please call 888-847-8821. Be sure to tell the navigator that you have read the strength after breast cancer educational material and you would like to schedule a free Strength After Breast Cancer screening.



Updated January 5, 2021

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