Lymph therapy, or lymphatic drainage, is a type of therapy often practiced by massage therapists. The therapy assists lymphedema patients by addressing fluid retention and swelling through very gentle strokes and specific protocols that sometimes include taping or bandaging.

For many years, breast-cancer survivors have been warned that air travel could result in lymphedema.

But new research indicates certain precautions about the risk of lymphedema for breast-cancer survivors are outdated.

University of Alberta researcher Margie McNeely says women who have had breast-cancer surgery are often warned that pressure changes in an airplane cabin could trigger lymphedema, or chronic swelling in the arm; however, the study she did with an Australian research team showed that only five per cent of breast-cancer survivors are likely at risk of developing any arm swelling when flying, according to a University of Alberta press release.

The caution about lymphedema risk is for women who have had lymph nodes removed from the armpit, a common procedure during breast-cancer treatment. Because these lymph nodes help drain fluid when they are removed, there is the potential for chronic swelling—still, the research indicates the risk of developing lymphedema by these women is low.

McNeely teamed up with Australian researcher Sharon Kilbreath to study the effect of air travel on 72 breast-cancer survivors.

The researchers compared both of the participants’ arms, the arm where lymph nodes were removed from the armpit and the opposite unaffected arm, with a device that can detect subtle changes in fluid difference between the arms, the press release noted. The measurements were done prior to and after the air travel.

Findings indicate that 95 per cent of the women had no arm swelling. Four women had a slight increase but at a follow-up test, done six weeks after the women returned to Canada, three were back to normal and only one woman was found at possible risk for chronic swelling.

McNeely says that, until now, information about air travel and lymphedema risk has not been based on solid evidence, but says this research shows that while there is a risk of developing lymphedema during flight, that risk is very low.

This research was published in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment.

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