Weight Loss Relieves Complication of Breast Cancer Treatment

Healthnotes Newswire (July 19, 2007)—Losing weight can help relieve lymphedema of the arm—a common complication related to breast cancer treatment in which the arm becomes enlarged from excess fluid. Since as many as 42% of women treated for breast cancer suffer from lymphedema, many women could benefit from this therapy.

The lymphatic system is composed of lymph vessels and nodes that carry lymph fluid—a watery substance rich in white blood cells. The system helps remove foreign particles and microorganisms like bacteria and viruses, thus helping to fight infection. It also helps maintain normal fluid volume in different parts of the body.

During surgery or radiation treatment for breast cancer, some of the lymph nodes and vessels that help drain lymphatic fluid from the breast and arm are often removed or damaged. This makes it harder for excess fluid to drain from the arm, causing a mild to severe enlargement of the affected limb called lymphedema. Lymphedema can occur immediately or years after breast cancer treatment. Treatments are limited and include compression bandaging and massage using lymphatic drainage techniques.

Being overweight or obese increases the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer and is thought to be a risk factor for lymphedema following breast cancer treatment. “It is unclear as to how obesity may influence the development of lymphedema,” said the authors of a new study published in the journal Cancer. They noted that excess weight increases infection risk and reduces muscle pumping efficiency within loose tissues. They aimed to determine if losing weight might relieve lymphedema in 64 overweight women who had undergone breast cancer treatment.

The women were assigned to a weight-reduction diet, a low-fat diet, or a control group for 24 weeks. Women in the weight-reduction group ate between 1,000 and 1,200 calories per day; women in the low-fat diet group restricted their fat intake to 20% of their total calories while keeping their total caloric intake the same; and the control group maintained their usual diet.

Of the 51 women who completed the study, those in the weight-reduction and low-fat diet groups lost significantly more weight than did women in the control group. “There was a significant correlation between weight loss and a reduction in excess arm volume irrespective of the dietary group,” the team said, concluding, “Weight reduction appears to be an effective means of assisting in the reduction of arm volume during treatment of the lymphedematous arm.”

(Cancer 2007;109:1949–56)

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.

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