Studies have found resistance training to be a safe exercise modality among women at risk of developing breast cancer-related lymphedema. This is important as resistance training is associated with many physical, psychological and clinical benefits. However, our current knowledge is limited as trials have evaluated loads with low to moderate intensity despite exercise science literature finding additional benefits in muscle strength and bone density from resistance training with heavy loads. Thus, studies exploring the safety of heavy-load resistance training in this population are warranted.
This is a descriptive study. Women (n = 149) treated for breast cancer partook in a structured telephone interview. All had participated in “Body and Cancer”, a six week, nine hour weekly, multimodal exercise intervention for cancer patients during chemotherapy utilizing heavy-load resistance training between January 2010 and December 2011. The average follow-up time was 14 months (range 4-26). A clinical diagnosis of breast cancer-related lymphedema reported by the participant was the primary outcome.
Breast cancer-related lymphedema was reported by 27.5% in the total population, and 44.4% in the sub-group with axillary node dissection. No statistically significant association between strength gains during the exercise intervention and the development of breast cancer-related lymphedema was observed, nor was self-reported participation in resistance training with heavy loads up to three months post-intervention.
These exploratory findings suggest no association between heavy resistance training during chemotherapy and the development of breast cancer-related lymphedema. However, randomized controlled trials should be performed to confirm this observation.