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How Physical Therapy Aids In Breast Cancer Recovery

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Bobbie Byrd

Seeing a physical therapist after undergoing knee or back surgery isn't unusual, in fact most expect it; however, including physical therapy as an integral part of a breast cancer patient's post-surgery rehabilitation is relatively new. Now, physical therapists are collaborating with other medical professionals to help those suffering from breast cancer achieve their optimal quality of life, whether they've had minor surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatments or a double mastectomy. 

Managing Breast Cancer Treatment Side Effects

The goal of post-surgical physical therapy or therapy during breast cancer is to reduce pain and restore the function of body parts that are heavily impacted by treatments such as radiation or chemotherapy. Some of the side effects that physical therapy can help mitigate include:

  • Pain in your shoulders, neck, back, chest or arms
  • Restricted movement or stiffness in an extremity or joint
  • Lymphedema or swelling in your arm
  • Weakness, fatigue or tenderness 
  • Neuropathy or damaged and malfunctioning nerves
  • Post-mastectomy pain and muscle dystrophy 

Some of these conditions may become chronic while others will disappear once treatment ends. Whether you're facing a temporary inconvenience or a life-altering condition, your physical therapist can help you assess your needs as well as prepare you for a positive post-cancer recovery. 

Breast Cancer and Physical Therapy

Physical therapy can address many of the issues you may face during and after breast cancer treatment. Some of the rehabilitation exercises and treatments a physical therapist can provide include: 

  • Manual therapy. Physical therapists work their magic on your joints, muscles and can even help with post-surgical scarring.
  • Lymphedema treatment. Swelling in your arm or limbs may result from the removal of lymph nodes. Your therapist can help improve lymphatic drainage through compression bandaging, give you individualized exercises that increase blood flow as well as guide you in how to best conceal inflamed areas. .
  • Postural training. You may have changes in your posture post-treatment, which your physical therapist can help address by recommending specific exercises based on ergonomic assessments of your spinal and core condition.
  • Exercise. Through all the stages of cancer treatment—before, during and after—regular exercise can help minimize or even eliminate the severity of side effects. Your physical therapist will evaluate your condition and prepare a program with personalized outcome goals. 

Facts About Breast Cancer and Physical Therapy

According to a 2019 article in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, a publication of the American Cancer Society, the number of cancer survivors in the United States continues to increase because of advances in early detection or treatment, also coupled with the growth and aging of the population. 

Many factors contribute to this increased survival rate, not the least of which is the involvement of physical therapists in the multidisciplinary approach to treating breast cancer. Let's take a look at some facts on the role of physical therapy in breast cancer patients:

  • A study published in the January 2017 issue of the Journal of Advanced Research found participating in regular moderate-intensity exercise has positive effects on chemotherapy-induced anemia in elderly women with breast cancer.
  • According to the April 2016 European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine, physical therapy has proven itself a feasible intervention capable of countering the increased fatigue and decline in cardiorespiratory fitness common in women receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer.
  • The January 2015 Journal of Clinical Nursing featured a study that found fatigue associated with radiotherapy for breast cancer can be reduced through a mild- to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise program.
  • The May 2007 issue of Oncology Nursing Forum discussed the results of a study by the National Cancer Institute that found a monitored exercise regimen during chemotherapy may minimize or prevent bone loss, which may then prevent or delay the development of osteoporosis later.
  • The February 2009 issue of the Journal of the Psychological, Social and Behavioral Dimensions of Cancer reported on a research trial that determined therapeutic massage is an effective adjunct to breast cancer treatment for reducing fatigue or physical discomfort and for improving accompanying mood disturbances. 

The bottom line is this: breast cancer treatments can be rough on the body, but individualized physical therapy can help patients sustain the strength they need during treatment as well as repair and restore the body in the aftermath of defeating cancer.

Survival Stories 

There are a myriad of stories of women who survived breast cancer and share their experiences in the hopes of helping other women through what can be tumultuous, frightening times. To find some of these inspirational postings, click through the sources below:

As physical therapy becomes a more integral part of cancer care and recovery, more people are recognizing the role complementary treatments played in their healing. For example, one survivor cited physical therapy as the reason she regained mobility in her shoulder and arm post-op. After mastectomy, she developed adhesions and tightness that prevented her from fully extending her arm, but physical therapy sessions twice a week helped her regain full range of motion.   

A diagnosis of breast cancer can be a life-altering event. But with the help of your doctor and the expert hands of a physical therapist, it's a storm that can be weathered. If you suspect there's a problem brewing in your breasts, see your doctor immediately.


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