Reducing the risk of lymphoedema

PUBLISHED ON: 1 July 2014

New guidance published today recommends that people who either have or are at risk of lymphoedema because of breast cancer are told by their doctors and nurses about the potential benefits of physical activity.

Breast Cancer Care Clinical Nurse Specialist Rachel Rawson has welcomed the new guidance saying:

It’s so important that NICE is highlighting evidence about the safety of exercise and lymphoedema. Knowing that exercise can be beneficial will give confidence to people living with the condition.

Exercise can also help maintain or improve health for anyone diagnosed with breast cancer. Regular movement every day can help keep joints supple and aid lymph drainage and extra exercises can also be useful if swelling restricts movement of the arm.

What is lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema in your arm hand or chest area can be a distressing side effect of breast cancer treatment. It is a swelling caused by a build-up of lymph fluid in the surface tissues of the body.

Not everyone who has breast cancer treatment will get it but it’s not possible to know in advance who will be affected. If you’ve had treatment where lymph nodes have been removed or may have been damaged by surgery or radiotherapy lymphoedema is a lifelong risk.

If you do develop lymphoedema it’s a long-term condition that can be controlled but once it’s developed it’s unlikely ever to go away completely. It can start months or even many years after treatment sometimes triggered by infection or injury to the arm.

Practical tips

Reducing the risk of lymphoedema is one of the information sessions often included in our Moving Forward courses which aim to help people who have had breast cancer to move on with more confidence after treatment.

When I sat in on one of the courses last year I watched a session with Lymphoedema Nurse Specialist Eunice Jeffs from Guy’s Hospital London. She had a simple message about how to approach getting active which will help reduce the risk of lymphoedema:

Pace yourself; no boom and bust.

No guarantees

She stressed that there are no guarantees where lymphoedema is concerned but evidence suggests regular slow arm movements may help to lower your risk of developing it.

Slow and gentle arm movements can be incorporated into day-to-day activities. For example housework particularly the action of dusting.

Eunice also said that resting your hand and arm all week then trying to do your housework or exercise in one big blow-out is riskier than doing a little bit every day checking how you’re doing as you go along – ‘No boom and bust' and stop straight away if you notice any pain or swelling.

Other physical activities such as walking and swimming may help to reduce the risk of lymphoedema but should be introduced gradually especially if you're new to or returning to exercise.

For more ideas watch the exercise video posted here which is taken from our free DVD, Eat well, keep active after breast cancer or download it from iTunes.

You can also download or order our newly updated free booklet Reducing the risk of lymphoedema.

Read our full press statement on the NICE guidance.

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