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Myths and Realities of Exercising Post-Breast-Cancer-Surgery, by Cynthia Shechter

Myths and Realities of Exercising Post-Breast-Cancer-Surgery, by Cynthia Shechter

Guest Blogger: Cynthia Shechter
Cynthia Shechter is an Occupational Therapist who earned her masters degree in occupational therapy at New York University. She has devoted her clinical practice to Breast Cancer and Lymphedema rehabilitation as well as hand/upper extremity therapy. Cynthia previously launched a Breast Cancer and Lymphedema rehabilitation program at a private facility in New Jersey and has now opened ShechterCare, a facility devoted in its entirety to treating individuals who have had surgery due to breast cancer and/or lymphedema. Cynthia has lectured on the topic of Breast Cancer Rehabilitation and Lymphedema to several Cancer groups in the community as well as to different physicians' groups. Her main focus is on educating her patients on the management of Lymphedema and enabling them to return to their regular lifestyle. Cynthia is dedicated to increasing the awareness of the medical community to the benefits rehabilitation can have on patients following Breast Cancer surgery.

Myths and Realities of Exercising Post-Breast-Cancer-Surgery
As an Occupational Therapist who specializes in working with women post breast cancer surgery, I am often faced with the following questions:

  • Can I work out?
  • Will lifting weights increase my chances of developing lymphedema or make it worse?
  • Does doing yoga make lymphedema worse?

There are, unfortunately, several myths about exercising after breast cancer surgery. The myths have formed from the fear that exercise is detrimental to recovery and can cause lymphedema. The purpose of this post is to separate fact from fiction and to help identify the truth about exercise after breast cancer.

Misconception Verus Reality, As Supported By Research

Misconception Reality

Working out after an axillary node dissection will lead to developing lymphedema.


Studies have shown that slow, progressive passive resistive exercises have no significant increase in lymphedema (McKenzie, 2003).

Doing yoga poses like “downward facing dog” will make lymphedema worse.

Exercise neither exacerbates nor initiates lymphedema (Bicego, 2006).

I should not lift any weights after a mastectomy or axillary node dissection if I want to prevent lymphedema or an exacerbation of swelling.

Lymph flow has been shown to increase to levels approximately 2-3 fold with exercise than at rest (Lane, 2005).

The best thing to do in recovery is to elevate my arm and not lift anything heavier than 2.5 pounds.

Repeated muscle contraction (with the limb bandaged) accelerates lymphatic drainage (Leduc, 1990).














In conclusion, exercise after breast cancer surgery is beneficial if done in a controlled setting with a gradual increase in intensity. If you already have lymphedema, wearing compression during exercise is important and beneficial. So, get moving ladies!!

Bicego D, Brown K, Ruddick M, et al. Exercise for women with or at risk for breast cancer-related lymphedema. Phys Ther, 2006, 86.
Lane K, Worsley D, McKenzie D. Exercise and the lymphatic system: implications for breast cancer survivors. Sports Med 35 (6), 2005.
Leduc O, Peeters A, Bourgeois P. Bandages: scintigraphic demonstration of its efficacy on colloidal protein reabsorption during muscle activity. Progress in Lymphology XII, 421-423, 1990.
McKenzie DC; Kalda AL. Effect of upper extremity exercise on secondary lymphedema in breast cancer patients: a pilot study. J Clin Oncol. 2003. 21 (3):463-466.

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