Get Strong, But Understand the Lymphedema Risk

Over the weekend, I had lunch with my friend Mel, author of the Cancer Warrior blog ( We both talked about some of our sports and interests (she plays hockey & I’m busy windsurfing since I’m out in Michigan on vacation). Mel commented that with all of my high-intensity activities, I’m very lucky to have not developed lymphedema. So, since I’ve been writing about lymphedema in my last couple of posts, I thought I’d continue.

Lymphedema is a very real concern for anyone who’s lymph system has been compromised by illness, surgery, or treatment. It is a life-long risk, and there is no cure. Noticed early, it can be managed. But it can become a life-altering, disabling condition.

It is not to be taken lightly!

I acknowledge the risk and have always taken it seriously. But I refuse to have my life controlled by the fear.

From the beginning I decided to take control as much as I could. I educated myself about lymphedema. I read and I talked with my doctors. I sought out lymphedema specialists to talk with. And with all of the information I gathered, I came up with a plan of action.

Once I had regained good range of motion, I began strengthening my weakened muscles. Following the advice of people who knew more than me, I began with very light weights. Actually, I started with no weights, doing slow exercises using only the weight of my arms. As I gained strength, I added weight a little at a time.

I also monitored my arm for early signs of swelling. I periodically measured my arm in several places.

I made slow, incremental progress. Over the course of many months I built up enough strength to begin thinking about taking up some of my upper body-intensive activities. I got back to windsurfing and eventually rock climbing.

After a couple of brief bouts of minor swelling (which were managed with some self-massage, some exercises to stimulate the lymph system, and keeping my arm elevated), I got fitted for a compression sleeve and glove (mine is from Jobst). I found I didn’t need to wear them all the time, only as a precaution with certain activities.

I’ve heard women complain about how they look or feel. I don’t understand the reluctance to wear a compression garment if it allows you to do things you enjoy. Personally, I am less concerned with making a fashion statement than with what I can do. And a well-fitted garment is not prohibitively uncomfortable. I would much rather wear it occasionally and still be able to do the activities I love.

And, of course, this risk of lymphedema is ongoing. I never forget about it. If I have taken some time off and gotten a little out of shape (yes, it happens), I go back to lighter weights again. I start off easy and build slowly.

So, yes I’ve been lucky. I’m strong and have not been debilitated by lymphedema. But I’ve also been aware, cautious, and prepared.


This entry was posted in breast cancer, breast surgery, lymphedema, strength training, weight training, women and strength. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Get Strong, But Understand the Lymphedema Risk

  1. Anonymous says:

    I am fascinated about your comment re keeping the arm elevated to prevent lymphedema. I have had some swelling following radiation for breast cancer and do manual lymph massage twice a day plus visit an expert once a week. I also see a biokineticist three times a week where I do moderate cardio and other exercise (finished radiation about three months ago). But how do you elevate your arm? The lymphedema expert I see says elevation is impractical as it involves holding the arm up at an angle for long periods and how does one do that. I would be curious as to what you do to elevate your arm.
    By the way, I really enjoy your blog. And find it helpful.

  2. julie says:

    When I’m having a little swelling I try to keep my arm elevated as much as possible – when I can rest it on something. I’ve found sleeping with it raised up on a pile of pillows to be helpful. I know it’s not practical for long stretches of time, but I’ve found it to be somewhat effective for me.
    And thanks.

  3. peter says:

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hi Julie,

    Graet blog. I’m a rock climber facing full axillary removal, and thus the prospect of lymphedema is worrying me immensely; it seems to strike at the heart of everything we do outdoors (hiking, camping, climbing, walking our vigorous dogs).

    How do you handle rock climbing now? Are you really careful not to use that arm too much? Is that even possible? Just how much stress have you found you can take (crimping, hanging off it and so on..)??

    I’m going to stay anonymous, sorry- my work colleagues don’t know yet. Posting from Ireland.


  5. Actually, I use my arm pretty normally. I think one of the biggest problems is a sudden strain. From the beginning, I figured I’m less likely to strain my arm if I use it regularly and stay in good shape. I consulted with my doctor and talked with a couple of lymphedema therapists.

    What’s most important is to always build strength incrementally. Don’t suddenly jump back into strenuous activity after some time off. Even now, after 10 yrs, I still start building up slowly after time off.

    The one concession I did make to my docs was to wear long sleeves when rock climbing – to help avoid scrapes. And if I do cut myself, I clean it carefully right away. After a couple of mild episodes with swelling, I got fitted for a compression sleeve and glove. Now I wear the sleeve just as a precaution when I’m climbing or at high altitude. I still manage to do a lot of high-risk activities: windsurfing, rock/ice climbing, some high altitude climbing.

    Just give yourself time to heal well after surgery and then start building back up very gradually. Our bodies do a really good job of compensating for losses. Just keep an eye out for early signs of swelling.

    And feel free to email me:

  6. butterfly says:


    That is very helpful advice, thank you so much. I have a long way to go yet, appreciate your ‘do it slowly’ advice. Inspirational blog-

    Gratefully,thanks again…


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