The Effect of Chronic Exercise on Lymphatic Function in Breast Cancer Survivors with Lymphedema

A serious, chronic condition facing 28 per cent of women who have received treatment for breast cancer is breast cancer-related lymphedema (BCRL)—a painful swelling of the hand or arm. Typically resulting from the removal of a patient’s lymph nodes and/or radiation treatment, BCRL is characterized by an impaired lymphatic system, which is no longer able to properly drain fluid from tissues. In addition to pain, women with BCRL live with side effects such as restricted movement in the affected arm, increased risk of infection and reduced quality of life. Although exercise was initially believed to aggravate BCRL, current research suggests that exercise may actually help in reducing the severity of lymphedema and alleviating symptoms. MSFHR previously funded Kirstin Lane for her PhD research to develop a test that uses nuclear medicine in combination with exercise to measure lymphatic function in women with BCRL. Now, as an MSFHR Post Doctoral Fellow, Kirstin is applying this test to evaluate and compare lymphatic function in women with BCRL before and after a three-month program of supervised upper extremity exercises. The results of this research may confirm exercise as a safe, positive treatment option for BCRL. This information could be used to create exercise programs for preventing and treating the condition, thereby improving the health and quality of life for women living with BCRL.