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Slow, Progressive Weight Lifting Helps Survivors Keep Physical Function

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Because of better diagnostic tests and treatments, more women are living longer than ever after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Still, breast cancer treatments can cause a number of side effects, including muscle and joint pain, neuropathy, fatigue, hot flashes, and lymphedema. Many of these side effects can affect a woman’s ability to function physically, and she may have difficulty walking, carrying things, and getting in and out of bed or the shower. Research has shown that women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer tend to have worse physical function than similar women who haven’t been diagnosed with breast cancer.

A study has found that a slowly progressive weight lifting program helped breast cancer survivors maintain their ability to function physically.

The research was published online on May 11, 2015 by the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Read the abstract of “Weight Lifting and Physical Function Among Survivors of Breast Cancer: A Post Hoc Analysis of a Randomized Controlled Trial.”

You may have heard about the Physical Activity and Lymphedema Trial, called PAL for short. PAL was one of several studies that found that a program of gradually increasing exercise supervised by a certified lymphedema therapist -- meaning you start gently and intensify slowly over time -- is not likely to increase the risk of lymphedema. This also is the recommendation made in the National Lymphedema Network’s Position Statement on Exercise.

Lymphedema is swelling of the arm, hand, chest wall, back, or other body part caused by lymph fluid collecting in tissue after surgery, especially breast cancer surgery that removes underarm (axillary) lymph nodes. Edema is the medical term for swelling, so swelling caused by lymph fluid is "lymphedema."

This new study used information from the PAL trial to look at how the exercise program affected the women’s physical functioning.

Kathryn Schmitz, Ph.D., M.P.H., professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, was the lead author of the study. Dr. Schmitz also is a member of the Professional Advisory Board.

The PAL trial looked at 295 women who either had breast cancer-related lymphedema or were at risk for the condition, randomly putting them in one of two groups:

  • a 13-week program of slowly progressive weight training, starting out with very light weights, that was overseen by trainers who took a special class on how to weight train women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer; these women also were given a 12-month membership to a nearby fitness center so after the 13 weeks of supervised training they could do the weight lifting on their own (the program is called the Strength After Breast Cancer program)
  • no exercise

The researchers assessed the women’s ability to function physically before the exercise program started and again at the end of the study.

The results showed that twice as many women who didn’t exercise lost some physical function over the year compared to the women who exercised:

  • 8.1% of the women who exercised lost some physical function
  • 16.3% of the women who didn’t exercise lost some physical function

None of the women had any serious side effects from doing the weight lifting program.

The researchers said the next steps would be to compare the weight lifting program with other types of exercise, such as brisk walking, to see if one type of exercise was better than another for helping to maintain physical function in breast cancer survivors.

If you’re currently in treatment or have been treated for breast cancer, it’s a good idea to make time to exercise each day. The American Cancer Society recommends that women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer exercise regularly (about 4 hours per week) to improve their quality of life and reduce the risk of developing new cancers. Exercise also helps build muscle and strength, which is probably a big reason why more women who exercised in the study were able to maintain their physical functioning.

If you’ve never exercised or stopped when you were diagnosed and want to get started again, talk to your doctor about exercises and any activity restrictions that make the most sense for you and your unique situation. If you’d like to do strength training, you might want to ask your doctor about the Strength After Breast Cancer program and if it’s available in your area.

For more information on exercise for people who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, including the benefits of exercise and how to exercise safely, visit the Exercise pages.

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