When you’re going through breast cancer treatment, especially after lymph node removal, you may have issues with lymphedema (swelling). When lymphatic fluid can’t flow efficiently, it builds up in the body. Studies show between 5 percent and 20 percent of people develop lymphedema after breast cancer treatment. Lymphedema related to breast cancer usually shows up in the chest, arm, breast, or abdomen.
Some MyBCTeam members living with lymphedema have wondered if infrared saunas are safe and whether they might be an effective way to reduce swelling. One MyBCTeam member wrote, “I had a small number of lymph nodes removed in 2013. Have been trying ever since without success to find out if it’s safe to use the small far-infrared sauna, which I had installed just before I was diagnosed.”
“Does anyone know if an infrared sauna is safe with the IV port in place?” another member asked.
Others have positive reports. “I bought an infrared sauna for my house, and I love it,” one member said. “I call it my healing box.”
If you’re considering an infrared sauna to help with lymphedema after breast cancer, here’s what you need to know.
An infrared sauna, also called a far-infrared sauna or FIR, is a sauna that uses light in the infrared wavelength to heat your body. While most traditional saunas heat the air, which causes the warmth you feel, an infrared sauna heats the body directly by exposing it to infrared light. Because an infrared sauna doesn’t have to get as warm to heat your body, it may be a better option for people who don’t enjoy the heat of a traditional sauna or who don’t tolerate it very well.
There are many health claims about the potential benefits of infrared saunas, but evidence supporting these claims is sparse. Potential health benefits specifically for those with breast cancer or lymphedema have been suggested by the results of some very small studies but are far from proven.
Early research suggests an infrared sauna may help reduce the swelling that comes with lymph fluid buildup. One small study on 32 people with lymphedema showed that the circumference of limbs affected by lymphedema was reduced after treatment with infrared light. When the researchers did blood tests and other lab work on the participants, they noted a number of substances associated with lymphatic swelling had been reduced, including some fat and proteins.
Fibrosis occurs when lymphedema gets severe or lasts for a long time. The affected tissue can become scarred, which can make lymph drainage even more difficult. One very small study, with only 12 participants with lymphedema, noted that exposure to far infrared light helped reduce not only the symptoms participants felt, like tightness or numbness, but also lowered the amount of fluid in the tissue.
It’s important to note that these studies are far from authoritative. While they offer suggestions as to how an infrared sauna might help with lymphedema, more research is necessary before medical professionals can draw confident conclusions. Check with your health care team before using an infrared sauna. They understand the details of your health and can best advise you about risks and benefits.
Initial laboratory research has also hinted that infrared radiation may help slow the growth of some breast cancer cells.
Researchers have directly exposed cancer cell cultures to far-infrared radiation. They found that infrared light inhibited growth in at least five lines of cancer cells, one of which was a type of breast cancer. Specifically, infrared light seemed to inhibit cancer cells that have low levels of a specific form of RNA, which is a molecule that assists with copying the genetic code of the cell. Since levels of this RNA can be measured, far-infrared rays may someday be an effective way to inhibit breast cancer cell growth in some cases.
Although this study points researchers in an important direction, it doesn't necessarily mean that exposing people to an infrared sauna will help treat breast cancer. The lab-grown cells in the study were exposed to far-infrared radiation directly, but most cells of the human body are located within layers of tissue. More research is necessary to confirm the results of this study and to determine whether far-infrared radiation can be a safe and effective treatment for breast cancer — and if so, how and for whom.
An infrared sauna may be good for overall health if you’re living with breast cancer, even if it doesn’t help you fight cancer or reduce your lymphedema. Infrared saunas may ease pain. If you’re experiencing pain from breast cancer or its treatment, spending time in an infrared sauna might help you feel better.
Time in the infrared sauna may also help your mental health. Some people find it easier to relax in the sauna, which can help fend off stress, depression, and anxiety. Living with breast cancer can increase stress and affect mental health in other ways. Time in the sauna could help you feel better overall by improving your sense of wellness and your quality of life.
Some studies show that regularly using an infrared sauna may also help you to fight off colds. Because cancer treatments can lower your immune system function, this might be an important factor in keeping you well enough to continue treatments without getting too run down by the common cold.
Overall, infrared saunas are generally safe, and there aren’t a lot of situations in which it may be risky to use them. Still, infrared saunas aren’t for everyone. You’ll want to avoid them in these situations:
Talk to your doctor about using an infrared sauna before you have your first sauna session. This is especially true for people who have a chemo port in place, as some doctors may want you to wait until it’s removed. Your oncologist can give you medical advice and make sure you use the infrared sauna safely.
Some people living with lymphedema also try manual lymphatic drainage massage to reduce swelling. This has its own potential benefits and risks. Check with your doctor about the best ways for you to manage lymphedema.
MyBCTeam is the social network for people with breast cancer, and their loved ones. On MyBCTeam, more than 64,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.
Have you used an infrared sauna? Did you notice any improvement in lymphedema, pain, mental health, or other benefits? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.