Weight Loss May Improve Breast Cancer-related Lymphedema

Weight Loss May Improve Breast Cancer-related Lymphedema

According to the results of a study published in the journal Cancer, weight loss may significantly reduce breast cancer-related lymphedema in overweight women.

Lymphedema is the buildup of lymph fluid in the tissues just under the skin, resulting in swelling, tightness, and discomfort in the affected limb. Damage to or blockage of the lymph system is the cause of lymphedema, and in cancer patients, this damage is usually due to surgery or radiation therapy.

While there is no single treatment for lymphedema, steps can be taken to manage the symptoms, including compression of the area, a specific type of massage to increase lymph flow, and specialized exercises.

Obesity has been linked with an increased risk of breast cancer-related lymphedema, and may also decrease the effectiveness of lymphedema treatment.

To explore the effect of weight reduction on lymphedema severity, researchers conducted a study among 21 women with breast cancer-related lymphedema. All the women had a swollen arm with at least 15% excess volume compared with the unaffected arm, and all the women had a body mass index (BMI) of at least 25. A BMI of 25 to 29 is considered overweight and a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese.

Half the women were given individualized dietary advice for weight reduction (the intervention group), and half the women received a booklet on healthy eating (the comparison group). Women in both groups received conventional lymphedema treatments, including use of a compression sleeve.

Most of the women in the intervention group were advised to consume between 1000 and 1200 kcal per day. Their actual intake by the end of the study was 1452 kcal per day (down from an average of 1865 kcal per day at the start of the study).

Study outcomes were assessed after 12 weeks.

  • Women in the intervention group lost an average of more than seven pounds. Women in the comparison group maintained a steady weight.
  • Among women in the intervention group, average excess arm volume declined from 24% to 15%. Among women in the comparison group, excess arm volume did not change.
  • Women with a greater amount of weight loss tended to have a greater decline in excess arm volume. And while both the affected and the unaffected arms declined in volume among women in the intervention group, the affected arm lost more volume (average of 350 mL) than the unaffected arm (average of 121 mL).

The researchers conclude that “weight loss achieved by dietary advice to reduce energy intake can reduce cancer-related lymphedema significantly.” They also note that as women lose weight, it will be important to regularly reassess the fit of compression sleeves.

Reference: Shaw C, Mortimer P, Judd PA. A randomized controlled trial of weight reduction as a treatment for breast cancer-related lymphedema. Cancer. 2007;110:1868-74.

Related News: Weight Training May Not Increase Risk of Lymphedema (7/3/2006)

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