With the increase in survival rate for breast cancer survivors, focusing on quality of life needs to be top priority. In 2014, The World Journal of Clinical Oncology published a review highlighting how women treated for breast cancer are facing a lifetime risk of developing lymphedema, a chronic condition that can be managed but not cured. The review mentions those who have obesity or higher body mass index (BMI) have an increased risk of developing lymphedema, which reinforces the importance of following AICR’s 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations.
The National Lymphedema Network (NLN) says it’s important for individuals with lymphedema to be physically fit, maintain a healthy weight and to seek medical advice before starting any exercise program.
What is breast cancer-related lymphedema?
According to Breastcancer.org, “lymphedema is abnormal swelling that can develop in the arm, hand, breast or torso as a side effect of breast cancer surgery and/or radiation therapy.” Lymph is a thin, clear fluid that circulates throughout the body carrying white blood cells and removing wastes, bacteria and other substances from tissues. Edema is the buildup/back-up of excess fluid. Thus, lymphedema occurs when too much lymph collects in an area of the body.
What are the signs and symptoms of lymphedema?
Common symptoms include tingling, numbness, heaviness, swelling, decreased flexibility or tightness under the arm, around the breast, chest, hand or arm. Lymphedema usually develops gradually, so early detection and treatment are key. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, reach out to your doctor.
Yoga as support for lymphedema
According to Joachim Zuther, lymphedema specialist and founder of the Academy of Lymphatic Studies, yoga is a great form of exercise for those experiencing lymphedema because it can be easily adapted to fit the abilities and limitations of the individual who is exercising. When diaphragmatic breathing is taught, it can increase venous and lymphatic circulation. Yoga has also been shown to improve all aspects of quality of life for cancer survivors. In addition to the physical ailments, lymphedema can cause emotional distress.
Yoga practices for those with lymphedema generally focus on engaging in postures and breathing techniques to increase lymph flow away from the extremities moving towards the torso. This can provide relief for stress and pain while gradually increasing flexibility, strength and balance. It is important to listen to the body and not push or try to do too much, as that would be taxing on the body and could have the opposite outcome.
According to Living Beyond Breast Cancer, “slow moving, rhythmic movements may help prevent lymphedema because they encourage lymph flow.”
Getting started with yoga
Be sure to check with your medical provider before practicing yoga, as they may recommend that you wear a compression garment. In the beginning, it is important to avoid any poses that involve weight bearing on the arms such as cat/cow, balancing cat, downward dog, plank, cobra, headstand and handstand. It may be possible to add these poses back into a practice over time, but it’s best to be cautious when starting or re-starting a practice after surgery or radiation.
In April 2020, a systematic review of the effects of yoga on breast-cancer-related lymphedema concluded that “yoga under the direction of an expert in yoga practice is safe and is not associated with any increase in limb volume or other adverse effects.”
Furthermore, “Yoga for Lymphedema” by Joachim Zuther provides an in-depth look at the benefits of yoga, as well as an explanation of the various styles and poses that are most beneficial for the prevention and management of lymphedema.
Watch this video of a short yoga practice that includes gentle breathing, mindfulness and movements to support the lymphatic system: