Although doctors treat thousands of new cases of breast cancer every year, rehabilitation varies from patient to patient. Physical therapy is a common treatment option following surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation that helps patients return to normal function, as cancer treatment can limit the range of motion in the shoulder and arm. This therapy eases pain, relieves stiffness that can restrict daily activities, and also helps with lymphedema.
How Do Physical Therapists Help?
The American Cancer Society suggests enlisting the assistance of a physical therapist to make daily activities like dressing or bathing considerably easier. Physical therapists work with patients to strengthen and stretch muscles in key areas, like the arms, shoulders, chest and back. In addition, they make sure the patient performs the exercises safely, while promoting a positive recovery experience.
The key to rehabilitation after cancer treatment is to gradually reduce pain and prevent stiffness. Over time, the exercises begin to increase flexibility, which helps improve posture. Physical therapists help patients develop a personalized exercise program that starts with motion training. After several weeks, that is combined with light resistance exercise. Physical therapists may also teach patients how to perform basic exercises on their own for application at home.
In most cases, performing the approved arm exercises is the best way to reduce the side effects of breast cancer treatment. Consult your doctor before performing any exercise, as the doctor may have a specific therapist or exercise plan dedicated to your individual needs.
What Is Lymphedema?
According to BIDMC, recognizing and preventing lymphedema is essential to breast cancer rehabilitation. Lymphatic fluid circulates through the body to remove wastes and bacteria from tissue; lymphedema is swelling that occurs when an excess of that fluid accumulates in the body. It’s caused by a blockage in the lymph passages that prevents tissue surrounding a particular area from draining properly.
When lymphedema occurs in a breast cancer patient, it typically occurs in the arms, chest, back and fingers. Specific exercises and physical therapy can help rehabilitate the area by increasing drainage, and allowing the area to endure day-to-day stressers that cause pain or discomfort.
What Type of Exercises Help?
The video above will walk you through some gentle breast cancer exercises, but, as always, please consult your doctor first.
According to the American Cancer Society, there are different types of exercises for breast cancer rehabilitation. Typically an exercise plan includes a combination of strength training, stretches, and flexibility exercises. Aerobic exercises encourage deep breathing, help the patient lose weight, and facilitate movement of the lymph, which reduces pain and swelling.
For example, a wand exercise increases the ability to move the shoulders. Lie on your back with your hips and knees bent and your feet flat on a surface. Then, hold a wand with both hands, and move it back and forth from your belly to a position over your head.
Another example is elbow winging. Once again, lie on your back with your hips and knees bent and your feet flat on a surface. Clasp your hands behind your head, and move your elbows upward from a resting position on a flat surface and as close together as possible.
Physical therapy can be an effective treatment option for rehabilitation after breast cancer treatment. It can reduce pain and stiffness, improve the flexibility of an afflicted area, and help ameliorate the effects of lymphedema. To learn more about lymphedema and your risk, check out this video.