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Breast Friends row for science

Local dragon-boaters and scientists have busted a myth about plane rides, swollen arms and breast cancer.

Local dragon-boaters and scientists have busted a myth about plane rides, swollen arms and breast cancer.

Margie McNeely, a professor of physiotherapy at the University of Alberta, released the results of her study on lymphedema and air travel at Edmonton's Louise McKinney Riverfront Park on Thursday. The study was done with the help of the Breast Friends dragon boat team, a group of breast cancer survivors from the Capital region.

Women with breast cancer often are warned that plane rides can cause chronic swelling in their arms, McNeely says, a condition called lymphedema. That warning has been around for decades, but has never actually been tested.

McNeely and her team decided to test this theory three years ago on women flying to a dragon-boat regatta in Queensland, Australia, some of whom were from the Breast Friends group.

They measured the arms of 60 Canadian and 12 Australian women before and after their flight. Of those, just four women showed any signs of swelling after the trip, and only one woman showed signs of permanent swelling.

This means the risks of air travel to breast cancer survivors isn't as great as we thought, McNeely says. "There is a risk with flying, but that risk is really quite small."

Lymphedema is the permanent, often painful swelling in the limbs of people who have been treated for cancer.

Fluid gets shuttled around the body by the veins and the lymphatic system, McNeely says. "It's almost like our sewage system." Since cancer often spreads through lymph nodes and vessels, doctors remove lymph nodes from the armpits of women with breast cancer to see if it has spread. That damages the women's biological sewer system, causing their arms to swell with fluid.

You can see the results in Bernadette Giblin, a librarian at Sturgeon Heights School, St. Albert resident and Breast Friends member. Her left arm is about a half-centimetre thicker than her right. "Sometimes it swells up and I can't wear my shirt, I can't wear my jacket," she says. Compression bandages help, but the swelling never goes away. "It's painful."

For the last few decades, McNeely says, doctors have long thought that pressure changes during long flights could cause lymphedema by reducing pressure on lymph vessels — that's why they've been telling women to wear pressure bandages.

McNeely's team used measuring tape and a bioelectrical impedance analyser (which checks electrical resistance) to track swelling in the women's arms before and after the flight. They found that 95 per cent of them showed no difference in arm size. They concluded that the risk of air travel worsening or causing lymphedema was pretty low, and that wearing a compression bandage was unlikely to cause or prevent it.

Doctors' advice hasn't kept up with the times, McNeely says. "Our surgical techniques have improved, our radiation therapy techniques have improved, but our advice has stayed the same," she says. "We may be worrying ladies more than we need to be about the risks associated with flying."

Boat power

Dragon-boaters are very fit, McNeely says, which might have made them more resistant to lymphedema. She says she hopes to do a follow-up study to see if these results apply to all women.

Research by Vancouver's Don McKenzie shows that upper-body exercise, particularly dragon-boating, can help women manage lymphedema, Giblin says. "It's been an integral part of my recovery," she says of the sport.

The study was published in the April 2010 issue of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. The Breast Friends team will be racing this weekend in the Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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