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If you are a regular reader, then you know that exercise is one of my addictions.
So, you won't be surprised to hear that years ago when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I wasn't too happy to hear that I should never lift weights again, lest I put myself at risk for lymphedema , a condition after breast cancer treatment that, while not life-threatening, can cause unsightly and painful swelling, numbness and discomfort in the arm and the hand.
Lymphedema can occur when lymph nodes in the armpit are removed to check if the cancer's spread. Sometimes your remaining lymph nodes are unable to compensate for the ones that have been removed and fluid cannot drain adequately.
Despite my doctor's orders not to life weights - or anything heavy like my children, for that matter - I guess I was considered a "non-compliant" patient: I returned to the gym as soon as I was able and slowly worked myself back into an exercise program, including careful weight lifting. I continued to pick up my toddlers because I still needed to hold them and feel close. And I felt great.
I had regained not only my strength but my confidence as well. Breast cancer had altered so much in my body and in my life and I was determined not to let it alter everything.
Rather than worsen lymphedema, researchers say, lifting weights can actually ease it. When they studied 141 women who had already been affected by lymphedema, it was found that among the women who continued to lift weights the severity of their symptoms improved, as did their upper-and-lower body strength. You can read the full report here.
What does this all mean? Well, for me it means to trust your instincts. Granted, I'm not a doctor and I was taking a chance by going against the well-meaning professional and popular advice. And I'm certainly not advocating ignoring your health professional. But I felt, deep in my gut, that movement and strength could only have a positive effect on a part of my body that was already so compromised by my surgery. It also tells me that conventional wisdom, while researched and popularized, can easily shift in the opposite direction given time and reconsideration.
If you'd like to read some of the report in the New England Journal of Medicine, click here.