Tears in the second row

Tears in the second row

I frequently give lectures. As a speaker, it can be a drag to talk right before lunch or a really serious drag to talk last at the end of a several day conference when even interested people fidget, yawn and squirm.

So I was taken aback recently when giving a late afternoon lecture to a room packed with cancer survivors. I noticed a fit, 30-something looking woman in the second row not fighting to stay alert, but fighting to hold back tears. Hmmm. The lecture was on lymphedema, not advanced disease or recurrence.

I continued on with the talk emphasizing positive points like the importance of being active, strengthening and exercise. Tears. I went on to show vibrant, engaging pictures of my breast cancer patients lifting weights, doing planks and cycling while training for a triathlon. More tears, and now her lower lip is quivering. Our eyes met and I gave her a subtle wink, non-verbally saying, “Let’s talk later.”

We met up after the room cleared. As she gathered herself, I racked my brain trying to come up with what I said that was so distressing. She finally spoke: “They told me I couldn’t do any of that anymore.”

Wow. It wasn’t what I said, it’s what they said. “They” being her treatment team.

Many of the lymphedema precautions spouted over the years were based on the conventional wisdom of way too long ago and on the old premise that if we tell people to do nothing, they’ll be safe. Don’t push, don’t pull, don’t lift, don’t carry and you will be just fine. It turns out though, that the people that sat on the couch got just as much lymphedema as the people out playing in the park. It turns out that while some were told not to fly or lift anything over 10 pounds, other cancer survivors were safely becoming flight attendants and Olympic athletes.

Arguments went on for years over what was best. The right answers, based on research and anatomy, are now clear. The lymph system is mostly passive, which means it relies on other forces to absorb and move fluid. Those “forces” include movement, muscle contractions, increased heart rate and increased breathing rate.

Yikes! I guess telling people not to move wasn’t a good call.

Though changes to the body from lymph node removal and radiation are not reversible, weakness, stiffness and decreased mobility are. Whether you have lymphedema or are at risk for it, your arm, chest and shoulder (or whatever area lymph nodes were removed) should be strong, pain-free and function normally, regardless of the type of surgery. If not, you are doing your lymphatic system a huge disservice. Studies show that rehabilitation and exercise, including lifting weights, both reduces the risk of lymphedema and decreases lymphedema symptoms. And all the walking you are doing (you are walking, right?!) is helping improve your body mass index which has also been shown to decrease lymphedema symptoms and risk.

Survivorship is already saddled with enough uncertainty to shed tears on misconceptions. Do not limp through your survivorship. Push, pull, lift, and carry. “Moving is living” holds true for your lymphatic system as well; the more the merrier, the more the healthier. Go take a walk. Your body has been through a lot, you deserve it.

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