Can Lymphedema From Breast Cancer Be Helped By Massage?

Barrie Cassileth, Ph.D, Sloan

Question: Can lymphedema from breast cancer be helped by massage?

Answer:Lymphedema is a serious problem that many patients -- not only with breast cancer, but also who have had surgery for gynecologic cancers -- experience. It is when the lymph system no longer allows the lymph to flow smoothly throughout the body and it gets stuck in the arm -- or in the leg, in case of GYN cancers. It is a very distressing, painful and awkward problem for patients. Massage, not massage therapy, but lymph drainage massage is commonly used in an effort to control lymphedema -- that is, the extreme swelling of a lymph node. It does not do very much to reduce the lymphedema, although, there's always that effort and it feels comfortable. It's not a bad thing to do, but it's not generally helpful.

However, what we have found recently is that acupuncture seems to reduce lymphedema -- actually reduce it. Lymphedema is considered an incurable problem. We are finding with a few patients who we have just begun to study that acupuncture can actually reduce the swelling. We're about to start a clinical trial to document whether this is the case. So if any of you viewers are interested in participating in that trial or in receiving acupuncture, you are welcome to come to our clinic and make an appointment to receive acupuncture off-study or on-study.