Heavy-Load Lifting: Acute Response in Breast Cancer Survivors at Risk for Lymphedema

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Abstract

Purpose

Despite a paucity of evidence, prevention guidelines typically advise avoidance of heavy lifting in an effort to protect against breast cancer–related lymphedema. This study compared acute responses in arm swelling and related symptoms after low- and heavy-load resistance exercise among women at risk for lymphedema while receiving adjuvant taxane-based chemotherapy.

Methods

This is a randomized, crossover equivalence trial. Women receiving adjuvant taxane-based chemotherapy for breast cancer who had undergone axillary lymph node dissection (n = 21) participated in low-load (60%–65% 1-repetition maximum, two sets of 15–20 repetitions) and heavy-load (85%–90% 1-repetition maximum, three sets of 5–8 repetitions) upper-extremity resistance exercise separated by a 1-wk wash-out period. Swelling was determined by bioimpedance spectroscopy and dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry, with breast cancer–related lymphedema symptoms (heaviness, swelling, pain, tightness) reported using a numeric rating scale (0–10). Order of low- versus heavy-load was randomized. All outcomes were assessed before, immediately after, and 24 and 72 h after exercise. Generalized estimating equations were used to evaluate changes over time between groups, with equivalence between resistance exercise loads determined using the principle of confidence interval inclusion.

Results

The acute response to resistance exercise was equivalent for all outcomes at all time points irrespective of loads lifted, with the exception of extracellular fluid at 72 h after exercise with less swelling after heavy loads (estimated mean difference, −1.00; 95% confidence interval, −3.17 to 1.17).

Conclusions

Low- and heavy-load resistance exercise elicited similar acute responses in arm swelling and breast cancer–related lymphedema symptoms in women at risk for lymphedema receiving adjuvant taxane-based chemotherapy. These represent important preliminary findings, which can be used to inform future prospective evaluation of the long-term effects of repeated exposure to heavy-load resistance exercise.

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