Buildup the Body, Lose the Extra Fluid

Cancer patients can control limb swelling with exercise and complete decongestive therapy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) The body doesn't react well when lymph nodes go away, including for cancer patients. When the nodes are removed, arms and legs can swell.

Exercise may be the best way to help cancer patients control and help lower fluid buildup, a new study has found.

This swelling in the arms and legs is called lymphedema and can be caused by radiation therapy and by removing the lymph nodes, which collect debris and fluid throughout the body, during cancer treatment.

"Exercise often - but under control."

This chronic condition affects almost 40 percent of former breast cancer patients who can only manage its symptoms since there is no cure. It can also affect patients suffering from other kinds of cancer.

The study, led by Sheila Ridner, PhD, RN, professor at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, looked at 16 studies on lymphedema published between 2010 and 2011.

The studies contained professional research or expert opinion and were specific to a person caring for his or her own symptoms.

Amongst the studies, 10 categories were identified for self-management.

These included:

  • full-body exercise
  • clothes and other devices that compress fluid
  • aromatherapy
  • complete decongestive therapy (phase 2, which involves manually draining fluid and bandaging the areas that are swollen, combined with exercise)
  • managing infections
  • losing weight
  • skin care
  • self-monitoring
  • massage

They found exercise that uses the whole body, such as stretching and weight lifting, could help minimize symptoms from lymphedema.

Three of the included studies showed that quality of life improved with full-body, core and weight lifting exercises of moderate intensity, as well as dancing and stretching.

They also found complete decongestive therapy can also help. This therapy involves skin care, exercise, manual lymphatic drainage and bandaging of the swollen limbs.  Patients may need help at first to learn how to apply and manage bandaging techniques.

Jane Armer, professor in the Sinclair School of Nursing at the University of Missouri and one of the co-authors, said previous research shows that "the earlier the interventions, the better the outcomes.”

“If patients can learn how to successfully manage the condition early on, then they can continue those processes throughout their lives, and their outcomes will be better than those of individuals who resist participating in self-care,” she said in a press release.

Future research should look into the effectiveness for each way of caring for this chronic condition.

The authors note few studies were included in their review, although they evaluated the ones that involved patients caring for their lymphedema.

No funding information was available and the authors have indicated no conflicts of interest.

The study was published in the July/August issue of the journal Nursing Research.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 25, 2012
Last Updated:
December 30, 2013