If you’ve had breast cancer and lymph nodes removed you are probably wondering how to prevent lymphedema. 

Many doctors worried that strength training could trigger the onset of this.  But recent studies have shown that a supervised program of gradually increasing exercise is not a risk, and in fact, may even play a role in rehabilitating the arm so that it can better withstand the day-to-day stresses that can lead to lymphedema. In other words, it seems that exercise prevents lymphedema.

If you are currently undergoing treatment for cancer we know that exercise is probably the last thing that is on your mind…but exercise and movement are VITAL for your mental health during treatment and ESSENTIAL for helping you make a speedy recovery.   

It is now generally accepted that people with cancer need to be as active as possible during treatment and recovery.  

The reasons for this are multiple.  Being active can reduce your stress or anxiety, improve your mood and self esteem, boost your energy, stimulate your appetite, help you sleep and help you regain your strength during recovery.  Exercise can also help you reduce side effects like nausea, fatigue and constipation.  

Exercise also helps you maintain a healthy body weight, which has many benefits. People who are able to maintain a healthy body weight are better able to handle treatment and its side effects, and they often recover faster. Studies have also shown that gaining weight during and after treatment can raise the risk of cancer coming back.

There are too many reasons to ignore so hopefully, you will include exercise as part of your treatment and recovery program and make it a habit that lasts for years to come.  

Prior to starting an cancer exercise program read the list below to ensure it is a safe and effective one for YOU!

Our Top 5 Tips

1)    Go at your own pace and seize opportunities as they come.  There will be days when your energy is better than others, use those days to get more exercise.  You’ll be surprised how even the smallest effort will help you both physically and emotionally.

2)    Practice restraint and seek slow, steady progression.  You may have been a marathoner or a yoga superstar before but while you are going through treatment you will probably have to take it down a notch and that is ok.  The goal of exercise is to leave you feeling stronger and more energetic, not to injury you and leave you feeling exhausted at the end of the day. There will be plenty of time to take it up a notch when you are on the other end of treatment.

3)    If possible, work with an expert that is familiar with your condition.  It can be scary to move after surgery, let alone actually ‘exercise’ so having someone beside you to not only help you understand your limits but to gently push you where you can safely go will ensure the slow, steady progression you are seeking.  After working with an expert to learn how to exercise properly, eventually you’ll be able to exercise on your own.

4)    Your plan should be individualized to meet your needs and fitness level. Just as there is no “one size fits all” approach to breast cancer treatment, the same holds true for exercise. Every person’s body is different. Strength training with light weights is good for many women, but some may find it too painful or too hard on the arm. In those cases, other forms of gentler exercise may be recommended. Also, if you’re undergoing chemotherapy or taking other medications with side effects, there may be times when you don’t have the energy to exercise or your exercise needs to be modified.

5)    Start slowly and cautiously, take frequent breaks, and use your arm as a guide.

Exercise is important, but you have to do it wisely with specific guidance from someone who knows your situation otherwise at worst you risk injuring yourself and at best you risk frustration and giving up. 

Ask the Expert!

We asked Susan Stuart, the Cancer Exercise Specialist at Roseland Health & Fitness to answer a few questions on this topic for us;

1) When can women start exercising post surgery? 

Women can begin an exercise program anytime: prior/during treatment and after surgery. As a general rule of thumb, their doctors will give them exercises to begin immediately. Once they have been cleared from the physician, usually 6 weeks post op they can begin a monitored cardio/resistance training program as long as drains and stitches have been removed. Maybe longer if surgery involved removal of other skin/fat and muscle for reconstruction purposes.


2) What is your #1 precaution for women exercising post mastectomy?

If auxiliary nodes were removed and/or radiation was a part of treatment the number one precaution is to watch for signs of lymphedema. Otherwise I look for muscular weakness, specifically due to surgical intervention in the chest shoulder area. These muscles needs to be rehabilitated slowly to try and get the range of motion and strength back in them. 


3) How long will it be before they start to see benefits from the exercise program?

In my experience, the benefits of exercise are immediately felt.  I use a protocol based system where I assess, monitor and reassess constantly.  Using this proven system, clients get slow, steady progressions that are safe and the benefits are immeasurable!

4) Can exercise prevent lymphedema?

Studies have shown that it can!  Again, a carefully designed program that is monitored closely can help patients with cancer immeasurably, including preventing lymphdema.


Whether you are in the middle of treatment or you are on the road to recovery a supervised exercise program can help in so many ways.  If you are interested in learning more, book a free consultation with our Cancer Exercise Specialist and we will let you know how we can help. 



**Although exercise is safe for many people, there are some exceptions. For example, if you’re at risk for infection or anemia you may not be able to exercise. This is why you need to talk to your doctor before starting.


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