Physical therapy can play a role in the treatment of breast cancer. Depending on the severity of the disease, extensive chemotherapy and sometimes surgery may be required. Following treatment, patients feel drained and worn out. This can lower the patient’s quality of life by significantly affecting day-to-day function.
Physical therapy helps with pain management, range of motion and muscle function. In fact, the American Cancer Society strongly recommends a structured exercise program and physical therapists are uniquely qualified to assess the need for, plan and implement such a program.
Broadly speaking, the role of the physical therapist in breast cancer can be divided into two parts: input immediately after surgery, and long term care input.
1. Immediately after surgery
Breast cancer surgery not only involves removal of the affected breast tissue, but can also include the nearby lymph nodes and some blood vessels as well.
Exercise facilitates healing and helps restore function in the affected side. As soon as pain subsides, the physical therapist can help increase range of motion and encourage muscle contractions. Physical therapists will prescribe and teach certain stretching and strengthening exercises for surrounding joints like the shoulder and elbow to maintain mobility and muscle function.
Breathing exercises allow for increased expansion of lungs and movements of joints in and around the rib cage. Postural precautions (not sleeping on the side of the operation for a few days for example) are also provided by the physical therapist.
The prevention of swelling in the lymph nodes (lymphedema) reduces levels of fatigue, helping patients to remain active.
2. Long term treatment
A physical therapist can help patients regain confidence, improve lung capacity, move without pain, remain physically active and live happy, healthy and productive lives. This is achieved using a combination of exercise therapy, manual techniques and home exercise programs.
Patients may also be asked to participate in group exercise activities involving other cancer patients. A social environment is a good way to promote rehabilitation and allow the patient to recover in a relaxed and comfortable environment.
Ask your doctor if exercise is right for you, and if the answer is yes, request a referral to a physical therapist.
Your physical therapist will teach you a gentle, progressive exercise program and will encourage you to work within your pain limits. Wear lose, comfortable clothes as you do some gentle exercises. Never push yourself to the point of pain. Always take long, deep breaths, and never hold your breath while exercising. In the first few weeks of recovery, always exercise under the supervision of a physical therapist.
Physical therapy plays an important role in the road to recovery for patients with breast cancer. Give us a chance to help you, and we’ll show you everything we can do to change your life.