The Power of Belief

Breast cancer survivors can avoid lymphedema with simple steps

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) The magic of this time of year is all about beliefs. Kids believe that Santa’s on his way. Cultural and religious customs are based on beliefs. And a new study shows that a woman's beliefs are powerful in moving her beyond cancer.

Breast cancer survivors who adopt a few new behaviors can help themselves avoid lymphedema. That’s the condition which causes the arm closest to the treated breast to swell. There’s no treatment for it, but lots of things can be done to avoid it in the first place, though.

Women just need to know what things to do, then have the confidence to carry them out. That’s what a recent study found.

"Believe in yourself - good things will happen."

There are no firm numbers on how many women treated for breast cancer develop lymphedema. Some estimates say as many as 50 percent of women who’ve had surgery will develop the swelling that at its worst can be very painful.

Study author, Suzanne M. Miller, PhD, professor and director of the Psychosocial and Biobehavioral Medicine Program at Fox Chase Cancer Center, says that women need to avoid five things to avoid lymphoma – avoid burns, infections, muscle strain, weight gain and constrictions on their arms.

Knowing what to do and taking action are two very different things. Here are what survivors should do to avoid aggravating the lymph nodes, according to Dr. Miller:

  • To keep the circulation moving and the skin supple, massage and moisturize the arm on the side where the surgery took place several times a day.
  • To avoid cuts and scrapes, use an electric shaver instead of a razor.
  • Wear gloves during housework, gardening or other physical activities.
  • Stop carrying heavy stuff.
  • Avoid anything that binds and constricts the arm in any way, including jewelry and clothing.
  • Protect the arm from being squeezed or jostled.

Taking these simple steps isn't so simple, the researchers found. "Taking precautions requires attending to the fact they had cancer, which makes many women depressed and anxious,” said Dr. Miller in a statement.

To find out what would help women make and stick to new habits, Dr. Miller and her colleagues visited with 105 women who had just finished treatment for breast cancer. They talked about lymphedema, what the women knew and how they felt about it. The women were also given materials from the American Cancer Society on how to reduce lymphedema risks. 

When the researchers followed up six months later, about half of the ladies were still sticking to the new behaviors. Using an electric razor and wearing gloves during housework were the hardest to follow.

Those who did stick with the recommendations tended to be women who felt capable of physically handling the steps. They were also likely to believe that the actions would limit their risk and were confident in themselves to be able to start and maintain the new behaviors.

Dr. Miller and her team also found that these women had strategies to reduce their overall stress levels – including calming anxieties about the new routines and the tension they might create.

The researchers suggest that clinicians can help by not only informing women of ways to reduce lymphedema risks, but also offering guidance on ways to handle stress, recommending support groups and discussing ways to learn relaxation techniques.

Dr. Miller said it’s about a woman taking control of the next phase of life. "Being a survivor is wonderful, it's great to get to that stage. Managing lymphedema should be seen as managing anything else in life that keeps you healthy, such as weight or exercise. Lymphedema is something that can generally be helped by simple behaviors,” Dr. Miller said in a statement

Results from this study were presented at the 2012 CTRC-AACR San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. Research that hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal is considered preliminary.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 22, 2012
Last Updated:
December 27, 2012