Breast cancer survivors don?t need to be afraid of air travel: U of A study

24 August 2010

University of Alberta researcher Margie McNeely says results from an international study she was part of indicate that certain precautions about the risk of lymphedema for breast cancer survivors are outdated.

"These restrictions may have been appropriate 20 years ago but maybe they're not so appropriate anymore," said McNeely, from the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

McNeely says women who've had breast cancer surgery are often warned that pressure changes in an airplane cabin could trigger lymphedema, chronic swelling in the arm. She adds that, until now, information about air travel and lymphedema risk has not been based on solid evidence. A study she did with an Australian research team, however, shows that the risk of developing lymphedema during flight is very low.

"We found that only five per cent of these women are likely at risk of developing any arm swelling when flying," said McNeely. "This tells us that maybe we are scaring women a little bit too much about this."

The caution about the lymphedema risk is aimed at women who have had lymph nodes removed from the armpit, a common procedure during cancer treatment. McNeely says because the lymphatic system helps drain fluid, when the nodes are removed there is the potential for chronic swelling.

McNeely teamed up with Australian researcher Sharon Kilbreath to study the effect of air travel on 60 Canadian breast cancer survivors who were flying to Australia for an International Dragon Boat Festival. Seventeen of these women were from Edmonton. The study also involved a group of 12 women who were travelling to the festival from different areas of Australia.

"I think what was exciting about this study was that we were able to collaborate internationally to pull it together," said McNeely.

McNeely, along with her colleague Carolyn Peddle from the U of A Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, compared both of the participants' arms - the arm where lymph nodes were removed as well as the unaffected arm - with a device that can detect subtle changes in fluid between the arms. The measurements were done in Canada before the women left, and again when they arrived in Australia.

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.

Ellen Atkinson participated in the study and says she has had concerns about flying ever since she was told about the lymphedema risk 13 years ago. Atkinson says the results from this study have put her at ease.

"For myself and other women in my situation this is good information to have. So, when we're contemplating taking long flights again, one's concern will be much less," said Atkinson.

McNeely says this study was done with a group of women who participate in regular physical activity. She hopes to do future research with breast cancer survivors from the general population.

"What we don't know is whether the findings will hold true for all of the women who had breast cancer. It may be that just these women who are really active were fine with air travel. That's one question that we have."

McNeely's research was published in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment.

About the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine
As the only free standing faculty of rehabilitation in Canada, the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine balances its activities among learning, discovery and citizenship (including clinical practice). A research leader in musculoskeletal health, spinal cord injuries and common spinal disorders (back pain), the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine aims to improve the quality of life of citizens in our community. The three departments, Occupational Therapy (OT), Physical Therapy (PT) and Speech Pathology and Audiology (SPA) offer professional entry programs. The Faculty offers thesis-based MSc and PhD programs in Rehabilitation Science, attracting students from a variety of disciplines including OT, PT, SLP, psychology, physical education, medicine and engineering.