Moving Through Lymphoedema with Exercise and Health Education
What does breast cancer related lymphoedema (BCRL) have to do with the lymphatic system?
Lymphoedema is a swelling in the arm, hand, breast, or torso caused by issues in the lymphatic system. Australian Lymphoedema Association
Women who have had breast cancer surgery and/or radiation therapy that removes or damages the lymph nodes are at risk of developing lymphoedema.
This is particularly true for cancer patients who have had all lymph nodes removed from their armpit (a full axillary node dissection), rather than those who only have a few lymph nodes removed (a sentinel lymph node biopsy).
There is evidence to suggest that women who are inactive and don't exercise are at higher risk of getting breast cancer-related lymphoedema.
What is the lymphatic system?
The lymphatic system is a network of tissues, vessels and organs that help rid the body of toxins and waste.
In the same way our blood circulatory system moves red blood cells around our body to drive energy through the body, our lymphatic system circulates our infection-fighting white blood cells through a series of lymph nodes to filter our bodily fluids and boost our immune system.
Each day, our lymph nodes filter our entire blood circulation three times, helping our body function optimally. Without properly functioning lymph nodes however, our lymphatic system can't effectively work to combat pathogens and bugs to keep our body healthy.
How can exercise support a healthy lymphatic system?
In order to thrive, our body needs a constant flow of fresh blood to reach the tissues and lymphatic capillaries.
But since the lymphatics don't have a pump to help move the fluid through our bodies, they rely on arterial pulsation, intra-abdominal pressure and muscular contraction. And this pulsing, contracting and pressure changing occurs through movement and exercise.
Our bodies are designed for movement. They need it. So, when you exercise, you help the lymphatic system do its job to effectively filter your blood which boosts your immune system and helps fight infection. Not only is exercise a great form of prevention, it's also empowering!
Is it safe to exercise if I have cancer or lymphoedema?
Yes. In fact, exercise has many benefits for patients undergoing cancer treatments.
Exercise allows you to maintain or improve your physical abilities, balance and muscle mass, as well as reducing cancer-related side effects and decreasing the likelihood of cancer coming back. An individualised exercise program is essential for every cancer patient.
We are all unique – our bodies, our health, our risks of lymphoedema and challenges. That's why our exercise programs should and will look different.It's important to have a trained therapist design an exercise prescription specifically for your individual history, needs and risk of lymphoedema.
A good personalised exercise program will incorporate a whole lot of education and graduated exercise to strengthen the right muscles at the right time to keep you safe while your recover and reduce the risk of injury and trauma.
How should I start exercising?
You can start your basic exercise program at home, simply by taking big deep breaths.
Deep breaths that move your abdomen change your intra-thoracic pressures and help fluid circulate through your body so it can be filtered. And we know that fresh, clean blood helps our body stay strong and healthy.
Next, seek out a trained health provider with experience in cancer and lymphoedema recovery to help you safely engage in an exercise program that is right for you.
Your therapist should understand your history, exercise prescription needs and risk of lymphoedema to help them develop an exercise mix that not only helps you to gain strength and reduce the risk of injury, but educates you in how to maintain a healthy lifestyle as well.
Plus, they'll keep you motivated to achieve your goals.
What about online exercise programs?
It's best to avoid online blanket exercise programs that aren't tailored to your needs and situation.
If you can't access a clinic, our Bounce Back from Breast Cancer Foundation program includes 24 filmed exercises specifically designed for breast cancer recovery that focus on:
• core, and
• correct movement patterns.
You'll learn how to do the exercises and how they relate to breast cancer rehabilitation.
Plus, you can book an online consultation with our Cancer Rehabilitation Specialist and Occupational Therapist, Kate Perkins, who will answer your questions, fine tune your exercises and modify your program so to meet your unique needs.
What other support is available for someone with lymphoedema?
The online health education on lymphoedema program helps people access the information they need to exercise safely and move confidently through lymphoedema recovery.
It offers courses for early intervention of breast cancer-related lymphoedema and lymphoedema management and is part of Andrea Mangion's HELP (Health Education on Lymphoedema) program, delivered by Lymphologist and Professor Neil Pillar.
The courses break down the risk factors of lymphoedema and provides you with checklists to use to plan pre- and post-treatment and with your therapist.