Physical Therapy Following Surgery for Breast Cancer
Women who had surgery due to breast cancer used to be told the best thing for them to do was to rest to build up strength and feel better. The thought was that any kind of upper body movement would increase the risk of lymphedema and possibly damage the reconstruction. However, this is not the case. While breast cancer is a difficult time to go through, exercise will help women regain their strength, function, and range of motion after surgery. Exercise also re-empowers women and they feel better about their body. Women who exercise have a better quality of life after cancer diagnosis, and have a decreased risk of other chronic diseases.
A typical post-operative program begins with movement exercises to decrease pain and restore shoulder motion. It will progress to strengthening exercises that will improve functional activities such as reaching overhead and lifting. Oftentimes, hands on interventions are included to decrease pain and swelling and restore normal movement. Shoulder motion exercises and hands on therapy are especially important for women who have had radiation therapy after surgery as they have an increased likelihood of developing scar tissue. Additionally, cardiovascular exercise is important not only for the short-term recovery but also to help lower the risk of cancer returning.
It is important to remember breast cancer is an emotionally traumatic diagnosis. The emotional trauma of the diagnosis along with the physical trauma of surgery can increase pain and apprehension about movement. A patient may have increased sensitivity to pain after surgery due to the nervous system being “ramped up” and being more sensitive. A physical therapist can help provide strategies that will help calm down the nervous system and therefore reduce pain. Additionally, nutritional strategies and support groups can be an invaluable part of a complete recovery.
Thank you to Dr. Amy LaTendresse, physical therapist at Colorado In Motion for contributing to this article.