Physical Therapy and Breast Cancer

Approximately one in eight women and one in 1,000 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer over the course of their lifetime.

Current treatment options such as chemotherapy, radiation, lumpectomy, and mastectomy can be incredibly taxing both physically and psychologically with side effects and outcomes that can hinder the patient’s ability to move through daily activities without limitations. There are many health care providers who will guide you through these treatments, but who is there to help you through your transition back to daily life and normal function?


Include your physical therapist! Many do not know how a physical therapist plays a role in the interdisciplinary care involved in cancer treatment, especially after breast cancer. There are many techniques that a physical therapist can utilize to help you achieve your goals and return to daily life with improved mobility and decreased pain.


After a mastectomy, lumpectomy, or radiation there can be significant scar tissue within the treatment area that can limit shoulder mobility during daily activities. This can also affect the position of your shoulder in relationship to your body, and decrease postural efficiency. Physical therapists at Body Gears can utilize Functional Manual Therapy to improve tissue restrictions and help restore normal movement patterns. They will also work with you to improve postural alignment for increased efficiency and control during daily activities.


The lymphatic system can also be disrupted from radiation therapy or mastectomy surgery, especially if lymph node removal was part of the surgical procedure. The lymphatic system is a series of connections in your body that play an important role in immune function and filtration, and disruptions in this system can lead to the development of lymphedema or swelling throughout the arm, chest and back. Performing lymphatic stimulation through the use of light massage and active muscle pumping can decrease edema and improve the sensation of heaviness or swelling throughout the upper extremity. In addition to swelling, you may also notice one or several fibrous bands in the armpit, down the arm, and even in the wrist. Cording or axillary web syndrome (AWS) is understood to be a phenomenon of the lymphatic system, and can develop as well after breast cancer treatment. Physical therapists can utilize Functional Manual Therapy to improve the mobility of these bands and improve lymphatic flow to decrease any restrictions you feel when moving the arm.


Post-mastectomy pain syndrome (PMPS) is also a common condition that may develop after typical breast cancer treatment. Sensations of burning, sharp, or shooting pain throughout the chest wall, armpit, and arm can be indicators of possible nerve irritation causing pain in these areas. A physical therapist can utilize techniques to decrease the nerve sensitivity and improve neural mobility for decreased pain and improved arm function.


On top of all of this, there can also be significant fatigue from chemotherapy and radiation that impacts your energy levels and ability to participate in your normal exercise or daily routine. A physical therapist can help you continue to perform the activities you love to do and improve fatigue through use of cardiovascular and strength training exercise and education.

If you have completed or are currently undergoing cancer treatment, schedule a Free Screen with a Body Gears Physical Therapist to see how we can help you improve your quality of life and return to the activities you love to do.

Authored By: Marysa Meyer, DPT

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