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Benefits of Physical Therapy for Breast Cancer Patients

Physical Therapy for Breast Cancer Patients

Breast cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers worldwide. In the US alone, it affects one in eight women and one in a thousand men. Fortunately, it is also a type of cancer that has become more manageable over the years, thanks to increased breast health awareness and screening programs, ongoing research into the field, and better treatment options. However, even with the increasingly advanced treatments, unpleasant side effects often cause pain for cancer patients. 

Specialized physical therapy programs such as post-surgery physical therapy or lymphedema therapy can help ease the pain and discomfort associated with the various cancer treatments and thus improve the patient’s quality of life during this difficult time.

Read on to find out why physical exercises matter in cancer treatment and learn about the benefits of physical therapy in breast cancer rehabilitation

Recovering from Breast Cancer with Physical Therapy

Treatments for breast cancer are highly personalized since they depend on several factors, including the subtype and the stage of the tumor, genomic markers, the age and general health of the patient, and the presence of inherited breast cancer gene mutations. Based on this information, a cancer care team can develop an overall treatment plan consisting of surgery (lumpectomy, mastectomy, reconstruction), radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy, and medications. Even though these treatments are necessary in the fight against cancer, they come with undesirable side effects, such as fatigue, poor balance, muscle tightness, numbness in the hands and feet, and mood changes. Such symptoms affect the well-being of cancer patients and strengthen the stress, anxiety, and depression they already experience after a cancer diagnosis.

For this reason, the American Cancer Society recommends physical activity for patients undergoing cancer treatment. Breast cancer physical therapy, for instance, consists of specialized exercises that accompany the different stages of cancer treatment (either in preoperative rehabilitation or post-surgery). These exercises improve patients’ strength and endurance, enhance their mood, and reduce the fatigue often occurring with cancer and its treatments.

Breast cancer physical therapy may consist of the following methods:

  • Manual Therapy: A hands-on treatment for the muscles, joints, scars, and fascia, to help patients improve range of movement, swelling, and pain
  • Lymphedema Treatment: A combination of methods such as manual lymphatic drainage, compression bandaging, and instructions for self-care to help manage lymphedema 
  • Postural Training: Ergonomic assessments followed by specific exercises to address post-surgery postural changes
  • Exercises: Personalized physical exercises to help ease the side effects of breast cancer treatments throughout all phases of recovery

What Should I Expect from Preoperative Rehabilitation?

Preoperative Rehabilitation takes place between the moment of diagnosis and the actual cancer treatment. It is a support program concerned with three particular areas: diet, physical exercise, and mental well-being. 

Physical therapy in preoperative rehabilitation essentially means preparing the body for the upcoming cancer treatment. The program starts with measuring the range of motion of the shoulders and spine, as well as the circumference of both upper limbs, and continues with identifying any impairments that affect recovery (including muscle weakness, postural problems, or pain). Based on this information, a physical therapist can create an exercise plan to follow before and after the surgery. During preoperative rehabilitation, patients will also learn how to manage lymphedema, and reduce side effects of treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or medication.

Thanks to preoperative rehabilitation programs, cancer patients may be able to leave the hospital sooner after surgery and have better overall long-term health.

What Should I Expect from Post-Surgery Rehabilitation Therapy?

Breast cancer treatments usually involve some form of surgery or even multiple surgeries. A lumpectomy or a mastectomy invades muscles, which can cause scar tissue adhesions and problems with posture, mobility, and strength–even years after the procedure. As with any major surgery, mobility and strength difficulties are almost inevitable if the surgery has affected the arms, legs, or the central nervous system–the parts of the body that move or control movement.

Any kind of post-surgery physical therapy plays a vital role in the recovery process. In the case of breast cancer, post-mastectomy physical therapy may be essential to help restore mobility and strength, manage lymphedema, and reduce any pain and discomfort that follows the surgery.

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What is Lymphedema and How Can Physical Therapy Help Me with it?

Lymphedema is a chronic swelling caused by the build-up of lymph—a fluid containing white blood cells that help the body filter toxins and waste. Primary Lymphedema is when a lymphatic system is faulty and can no longer cope with the lymphatic fluid. Secondary Lymphedema, on the other hand, occurs when the lymph nodes are removed or damaged, for example, by trauma or obesity, but also by cancer and its related treatments, such as surgery or radiation.

In the case of breast cancer, lymphedema mainly occurs in the arm. It is a lifelong condition that physical therapy may help reduce with techniques such as myofascial release,  manual lymphatic drainage, and compression bandaging. These techniques may help move the fluid back into the lymph system and reduce painful swelling. During a post-surgery rehabilitation, a physical therapist would also provide patients with instructions on how to cope with lymphedema throughout their lives.

Summary

Breast cancer is a demanding condition to live with, and the available treatments have strong side effects which can be difficult to manage. Physical therapy helps alleviate some of these side effects, allowing patients to remain as independent as possible in this challenging period of their lives

At Chaux Physical Therapy, we use a holistic approach in addition to manual techniques, including myofascial release to help cancer patients become more mobile and more in control of their bodies and to be able to manage the stress, anxiety, and depression that often follows the cancer experience.

Dr. Alexandra Chaux provides breast cancer patients with personalized physical therapy programs–including preoperative rehabilitation, post-mastectomy physical therapy, or myofascial release–that accompany them through all stages of recovery.

Call 805-203-9940 and book an appointment with Dr. Alexandra Chaux to learn more about the benefits of breast cancer physical therapy, and to find a breast cancer rehabilitation program tailored to your needs.

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