Effects of Physical Therapy After Breast Cancer Treatment

By Taryn Cohn, MSPT, COMT

The road to recovery following breast cancer treatment is multifaceted.  The experience can often be draining and confusing for individuals, significantly impacting their lives both emotionally and physically.  Seeking out advice and treatment through physical therapy can be an integral part in your journey towards regaining function and returning to the activities you love.  There are several areas in which physical therapists are trained to assist you in your rehabilitation, including orthopedic issues of the shoulder, full body conditioning and lymphedema.

Shoulder issues frequently become an area of concern for breast cancer patients.  The shoulder is a complicated joint that is made up mostly of muscle and tendon making it both very versatile and extremely sensitive to disruption.  It takes perfect coordination of many muscle groups for the shoulder to work properly.  Any surgical procedure—be it a mastectomy, lumpectomy, lymph node removal, breast reconstruction, or radiation treatments—can significantly affect function of the shoulder.  As a consequence, shoulder problems are a common occurrence among breast cancer patients. Following the surgeries and radiation, scar tissue develops often leaving residual nerve pain, sensitivity, and muscle weakness.  One of the most effective tools to combat these issues is early intervention through exercise and manual therapy techniques under the guidance of a physical or occupational therapist.  Patients should know that as soon as they have been cleared by their physician they should begin some basic exercises to help restore full use of the shoulder.

While much attention is focused on the chest and upper extremity recovery, it is important not to neglect the rest of the body.  Your body has been through a lot and has lost strength and endurance leaving it vulnerable to other orthopedic injuries.  Patients need to address the issues of stamina and overall body conditioning.  The treatments your body has had to endure leaves it weak and fatigued.  It is important to reestablish a strong foundation from which the body can optimally perform.  Our foundation relies on core strength.  The strength of the abdominals, back, hips and buttocks are very important to restore complete body stability.  Physical therapists can develop well rounded programs to address the individual’s areas of need.

One final issue that should be addressed when talking about breast cancer rehabilitation is that of lymphedema.  Lymphedema occurs when there is damage or abnormality in the function of the lymphatic system.  The lymphatic system is responsible for the transportation and removal of the body’s waste.  When it is unable to effectively perform its job it can result in a build-up of fluids and cell wastes in the tissues causing swelling of the limb that is difficult for the body to remedy without outside intervention.  Lymph node surgery and radiation increase the risk of developing this condition.    There are physical and occupational therapists that specialize in the treatment of this condition.   Ask your physician for recommendations regarding a lymphedema specialist in your area.

Regaining control of your life after enormous change can be a frightening and frustrating process, but it is not a process that has to be faced alone.  Special attention should be paid to both the mental and physical aspects of healing and rehabilitation.  To maximize your recovery seek out medical professionals. Physical therapists can provide the expertise and support necessary to get you back to life.

For more information on physical therapy after breast cancer please call us at 504 841 0150.