Breast cancer survivors: Time to pump it up

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Breast cancer surgeons have long wagged their fingers at patients warning them never to lift anything over 15 pounds, especially if lymph nodes were taken during surgery. Well, for any woman with a child (or groceries for that matter) the limitation is annoying at best, disempowering at worst.

That advice was rooted in the fear that straining an arm robbed of a few lymph nodes may trigger lymphedema, a painful (and sometimes permanent) swelling of the appendage. The problem with this advice? It had never been tested. That is, until recently. This week the second installment of a two-part look at breast cancer survivors and exercise debuts and its findings gives the country’s 2.4 million breast cancer survivors permission to lift at will.

First, a bit of backtracking. Last August, the New England Journal of Medicine ran the first study’s findings: that breast cancer survivors with lymphedema who started a weight-lifting program were less likely to see their conditions worsen than women who didn’t lift weights. The study’s lead author, Kathryn Schmitz, PhD, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, called the revelation, “Another example of well-meaning medical advice turning out to be misguided.”

Now, the second study, published this month in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, gives breast cancer survivors another reason to cheer. The researchers found that, in addition to building muscle, the survivors who lifted weights felt better about their bodies, felt more confident about their appearance, and were more satisfied with their intimate relationships compared to those who didn’t.

More specifically, the weight lifters reported a 12% boost in body image and satisfaction with their intimate relationships, compared to a mere 2% gain in the control group. “They felt more proud of their bodies, more comfortable in their own skin, and more empowered emotionally because they were more physically powerful,” says Schmitz.