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Managing Lymphedema: Breast Cancer

Who Gets Breast Cancer?

According to Statistics Canada, in 2003, research data showed a lifetime probability of developing breast cancer in women to be approximately 11.4%. It also showed that the probability of a woman developing breast cancer increases between the ages of 40 and 70.

Possible Consequences of Treatment:

Breast cancer survivors may experience many challenges related to their treatments. According to Courneya et al (2002) some of the emotional effects may include depression, poor body image and loneliness to name a few. The most common physical consequences could include weight gain, osteoporosis, limited range of motion, weakness of the upper extremities and lymphedema.

Lymphedema: Supervised Exercise and Compression Sleeves are Beneficial:

Many studies have demonstrated over the years that exercises can have multiple benefits both physically and emotionally. These benefits can also be seen in breast cancer survivors suffering with upper extremity lymphodema. Two major components should be respected when considering post-cancer treatments. Firstly, a closely supervised exercise program individualized for the cancer patient can greatly increase the chances of achieving benefits such as improved range of motion, physical endurance, psychological health and overall well being. Secondly, the use of a compression sleeve on the affected arm during upper-body exercises can help control or decrease lymphodema which also has the added benefit of improving body image.

Benefits of Massage Therapy:

Massage Therapy presents many benefits as a complimentary therapy to Breast Cancer patients. Massage can help to address symptoms ranging from stress and pain to side effects of radiation and chemotherapy treatment as well as side effects of surgical intervention.

Massage can be beneficial after a diagnosis of breast cancer to help decrease stress. Many women will feel emotionally overwhelmed by their diagnosis, this will only increase the fatigue and pain that they may be experiencing. In addition the stress and fatigue can also decrease the functioning of their immune system. Before and during medical treatment for breast cancer, Massage Therapy focuses on light relaxation techniques. It is recommended that Massage is not applied for a few days after chemotherapy or radiation treatments as it may decrease the effectiveness of treatments.

After medical intervention has occurred, many women will experience a wide range of physical and emotional side effects. Again, massage will initially focus on relaxation and stress reduction. Massage Therapy can also help to improve body image as many women are feeling a loss of self confidence particularly after a mastectomy has been performed, and if edema is present in the limb.

Manual Lymphatic Drainage

A Massage Therapist can apply Manual Lymphatic Drainage to reduce any lymphedema that may be present. Massage Therapists may also perform passive Range of motion exercises to help form a functional scar and prevent frozen shoulder which often occurs after surgery. As healing progresses, Massage Therapy techniques can be applied to help breakdown scar tissue and decrease radiation related fibrosis.

Lymphedema treatment can impede a patient’s recovery time following breast cancer surgery. Seeking treatment from your physiotherapist and/or massage therapist can improve your quality of life both during recovery and after.

Ref: 1. Courneya KS, Mackey JR, McKenzie DC: Exercise for breast cancer survivors: research evidence and clinical guidelines. Phys Sportsmed   2002;30(8):33-42
2. Schnirring L: Can Exercise Improve Breast Cancer Survival? Phys Sportsmed 2004;32(5)