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Green light to fly

The risk of lymphedema from flying appears to be small.

Written by New York Times | September 5, 2010 8:40:27 pm

The claim:
Flying after breast cancer surgery can cause swelling.

Women who have had surgery to remove lymph nodes,a common breast cancer treatment,are often warned that flying can lead to lymphedema,a painful swelling,in their arms.

The concern is that changes in cabin pressure might influence the movement of fluid in the lymphatic system. Because lymph nodes drain this fluid,the thinking goes,it could more easily accumulate in a person’s affected arm.

But when scientists looked at the effects of air travel on breast cancer survivors in a recent study,they found that the risk was small. In the study,published in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment,the scientists followed and examined 72 women in the weeks before and after air travel. Most of the women were flying between Canada and Australia.

All but a few had no arm swelling after their time in the air,and only one showed possible signs of chronic swelling six weeks later.

Dr Patrick Borgen,director of breast cancer services at the Maimonides Cancer Centre in Brooklyn,who was not involved in the research,said the findings were interesting but not definitive.

For patients who have had only one or two nodes removed,he said,there is no risk in flying; women who undergo complete removal,and particularly those with higher levels of body fat,should still consult their doctors beforehand.

“The No. 1 predictor of who gets lymphedema is the size of the arm to start with,” he said. “Women who have a larger arm size should still be careful,and I think there’s still some value in wearing a compressive sleeve on long flights.”

The Bottom Line:
The risk of lymphedema from flying appears to be small.

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