Weight Lifting Can Decrease Arm Swelling in Breast Cancer Survivors

Weight lifting

Historically, healthcare providers have cautioned breast cancer patients to avoid weight training after a mastectomy and or axillary dissection. This advice turns out to be misguided as weight lifting can decrease arm swelling in breast cancer survivors.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine have shown that breast cancer survivors who lift weights are less likely than those who don’t weight-lift to have problems with lymphedema. Lymphedema is due to the disruption from the surgery to the lymph system and results in arm and hand swelling.

The study has been published in the August 13 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. This new information may provide a simple solution to help decrease arm swelling in breast cancer survivors. Other benefits of weight-lifting will be the improved strength which will aid them in everyday activities like carrying bags of groceries or carrying children/grandchildren.


Kathryn Schmitz, PhD, MPH and colleagues enrolled 141 breast cancer survivors with lymphedema. The enrollees were then placed into two groups. One was assigned to a weight-lifting group who lifted twice-weekly for 13 weeks. The other group was used as a control group and did no weight-lifting.

The weight-lifting women (71) wore a custom-fitted compression garment on their affected arm during their workouts. Their arms were measured monthly to ensure any changes were noted as soon as they occurred. Each week were asked about changes in symptoms.

Both groups had the same proportion of women who experienced an increase of 5% or more in their limb swelling. However, the weight-lifting group had fewer exacerbations of their condition which required treatment from a physical therapist; 9 compared to the 19 women in the control group. The weight-lifting group also had a reduction in symptoms such as pain.

If you suffer from lymphedema check with your doctor before starting a weigh-lifting program. When you begin weight-lifting, begin with a slow, progressive program. Use a certified fitness professional to learn how to do these exercises properly. Wear your custom-fit compression garment during all exercise sessions.

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine News Release