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Exercise and Lymphedema

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Allison Bially

Breast Cancer /

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Not to sound like an old lady, but…

When I was young.

I ran track and field in high school and college. This experience taught me many things, top among those were that I can push myself to my limits. If it hurts now, it’ll help later. And if I keep exercising, just a little bit longer, the pain will go away. (I think that is also called numbness. Or stupidity.)

Of course, as I got older, this changed somewhat. Turns out that all that pushing myself translated into achy knees and joints in my twenties and thirties. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, for much of my young-ish adult life, I pushed past even that.

Eventually my knees hurt too much, my feet were constantly in pain, and I just had to stop. I turned to weight lifting instead – and very happily whiled away hours pushing myself in a new way.

Simply put, I love physical exertion.

I don’t think that will ever change. But one important thing has changed. I’m no longer allowed to exert myself physically.

Let me back up a bit.

Among the many long-lasting gifts cancer bestowed upon me, I received a lifelong condition called lymphedema. This in and of itself can be its own blog post. But the end result is that my right arm and hand is prone to swell up like, well, like something that swells up a lot. This can make it difficult to do little things, like hold a pencil or a fork. It can also get uncomfortable and painful. So I go to great lengths to avoid that happening.

I have been coached over the last few years by varying physical therapists on the topic of exercise and lymphedema. They’ve told me that exercise both helps and hurts lymphedema. Too much of it, too fast, and I get balloon arm. But since I’ve always kept physically fit, the right amount of exercise will keep it at bay. So what rules have they bestowed upon me?

  1. I’m not supposed to lift more than 5 pounds.  There goes my fun doing pushups as well as a man and lifting as much free weights as I can bear. Seriously – I really used to love doing that.
  2. When I do exercise, I’m supposed to slowly build up my speed, distance and resistance. In other words, don’t push myself. Uh oh.
  3. My exercise wardrobe has been expanded to include compression garments. I have a special sleeve and glove that I wear for all manner of exercise.
  4. Except swimming. Because water, I’ve been told, serves as natural compression. Yay! I love to swim. I think I was supposed to be a fish. Honestly, I probably should have been a competitive swimmer, not sprinter. Did I miss my chance for Olympic gold?

So, in the three or so years since my cancer treatment has been complete, I’ve been experimenting with different exercise regimens. I tried various forms of weight training that didn’t require more than 5 pounds. Boring. I tried walking up steep hills. Ehhh. I then decided to do what I was always meant to do. I swam.

But being self-competitive, I fell into a trap. I got in the water, loved how it felt, and just kept going. At first, it was no problem. I was swimming and I felt great. And then, after several weeks of swimming as fast and as far as I felt like it (trying to go farther and faster than the day before, of course), I noticed it. My right breast was tight, uncomfortable and swollen. My lymphedema, it seems, was mocking me.

The upshot was that now I don’t just have an oh-so-stylish compression glove and compression sleeve, but I am also occasionally strapped in a compression vest – imagine a chastity belt, but for a bosom.  Pleasant.

It also meant that I had to stop swimming. Well, I didn’t HAVE to stop swimming. But I knew there was no way I could swim “just a little bit”. To me, the words “swimming” and “restraint” just don’t go together.

What now? Well, Tamoxifen, the cancer drug I’m on for the next decade or so, emulates menopause. Which means that, among other things, I am prone to weight gain. Since I love to eat, I have to find a way to exercise – or it won’t just be the lymphedema causing me to swell. My latest attempt? Running. Yes, I’m going back to my roots. My knees don’t hurt, yet. But I suspect it is just a matter of time. And when that happens, I’ll have to find something new.

In the meantime, I can run (or more likely jog with a sprinkling of walking mixed in) without fear of pushing it. Because as much as swimming is intoxicating for me, running is sobering. I don’t hate it, but I also don’t enjoy it. So I can stop anytime. (At least for now – running does have a tendency to grow on you.)

I’m pretty sure this exercise regimen is not permanent. As I continue to age (hooray for that) and my post-cancer body continues to evolve, I’m sure I’ll have to keep experimenting with new ways to keep my body moving – without overdoing it.

Whatever that way may be, now or in the future, it sure does feel good to do something that makes me feel strong physically. Because when I was younger – and undergoing chemo – I couldn’t walk down the block without stopping for a breath.

Ah to be young again. Then again, maybe not. 

About The Author
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Allison Bially is a writer, mother and breast cancer survivor who grew up in Massachusetts. She has also lived in places as varied as Kwajalein, Marshall Islands, Haifa Israel, New York and Oregon.  A graduate of the University of Rochester and New York University, she now lives in California with her husband, their two daughters, their golden retriever-shepherd mix, and a healthy sense of humor. Her first book, Booby Trap, is available on Amazon.com and for the Nook and iBook. She can also be followed on Facebook and Tumblr. 

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