A new study has reported that long-haul air travel does not increase the arm swelling associated with lymphedema in breast cancer survivors. The study included 60 Canadian and 12 Australian female survivors attending a boat regatta in Queensland, Australia. Changes in arm extracellular fluid were measured using a single-frequency bioimpedance device. Each arm was measured separately using a consistent procedure to obtain the inter-limb impedance ratio. An increase in the ratio demonstrates accumulated fluid.

The at risk arm of each woman was measured within the two-week period before her flight and upon arrival in Queensland. The 40 women traveling from Canada for the regatta were measured again six weeks after returning home. Air travel did not result in an increase in the impedance ratio for most (95%) of the women. The impedance ratio of the long-haul travelers (Canada to Australia) was 1.007 +/- 0.065 before the flight and 1.006 +/- 0.087 after the flight, an insignificant difference. The authors comment that further research is required to establish whether these findings can be extended to the general population of women treated for breast cancer.

Physically fit women have less lymphedema

Lymphedema eventually affects a majority of patients who undergo axillary lymph node dissection and some women with sentinel lymph node dissection. Radiation to the lymph nodes increases a woman’s risk of developing lymphedema, as does being very overweight. Although most women eventually experience a reduction in symptoms, lymphedema can become chronic. Chronic lymphedema has no cure and patients may have a life-long need to wear compression garments and undergo labor intensive treatments to prevent worsening of swelling and pain.

The study provides the welcome news that long-haul flights, with their fluctuations in air cabin pressure, do not appear to increase lymphedema. However, the women in the study were likely to be more healthy and considerably more fit than the average breast cancer survivor and may have been less susceptible to any lymphedema trigger. Women with lymphedema should follow the advice of their health care providers with respect to using compression garments or adopting other strategies to reduce lymphedema symptoms during travel.