Swimming to Help Treat Lymphedema


What started as a hangnail turned into one of the most difficult late effects of breast cancer. This survivor found swimming to be a viable treatment for her lymphedema.

Lymphedema remains one of the most difficult late effects of breast cancer because it can show up for no apparent reason, there is no cure and managing it can be difficult (if not impossible).

My lymphedema occurred as the result of an infection in my arm that was caused by a hangnail. That’s right, a hangnail. When I felt the familiar pain in the middle finger of my right hand, it was four years after my mastectomy. My surgeon had mentioned that I needed to care for my arm after surgery, but, like many women diagnosed with breast cancer, my thoughts were on other issues at the time—such as dying.

So, when, four years after surgery I had a hangnail, I didn’t give it a thought. I ran it under hot water, which was the only thing I had ever done to kill what had always been a mild infection. This time it was different. As my hand and then my arm started to feel strained that day, I never connected it to my surgery or the possibility of lymphedema. But the next morning when my arm was hot, swollen and red, I knew I was in trouble. I called my surgeon, who immediately put me on "the nuke" of antibiotics and told me to see her first thing the next morning. By the time we reached her office, the red from the arm had traveled onto the chest wall. She took one look at it and literally marched me next door to the hospital where I stayed for five days on IV antibiotics.

The result: My right arm is larger than my left, and I had two more infections in the next year. Luckily since then, it’s only the swelling that has been a problem.

Over the years, I have undergone manual lymph drainage, wrapping and self-massage (when I remember). The manual lymph drainage I do is simple: I put my arm over my head and gently massage from the wrist to the armpit. Alas, I refuse to wear the sleeve because it cuts me, and in the Texas summer heat… well, let’s just say that I detest it. There is some research questioning the effectiveness of the sleeve. I bought a sequential pump that made no difference and then reverted to the only thing that seemed to work for me to keep the arm at its smallest, which is swimming.

There has been research on the positive effects of swimming on lymphedema, so it was one more reason to keep up with my own swimming routine. I have watched research on lymphedema over the years and I know many women suffer with it in ways I don’t — not being able to wear sleeves, the heaviness and pain of the arm, constant infections and the obvious embarrassment of having a large arm.

If you are struggling with lymphedema, try swimming. I used to do a regular swimming crawl. As I have gotten older, I walk and move my arms against the resistance of the water. It seems to do the trick. My arm is close to normal — and it’s a good way to get some exercise, too!

There were few lymphedema practitioners when I first had this problem, but now there are many. Consult with your doctor before you begin swimming to treat your lymphedema— but I think you will find that they are all in favor of it.

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