Rehabilitation After Breast Cancer Surgery
It’s a strange phenomenon: When cancer treatment is successful, it usually leaves you feeling worse than when you started. This is especially true with breast cancer treatment, which typically requires a potent combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Your goal for breast cancer treatment isn’t just to be cancer free, but to return to a pain-free life where you can do all the things you loved before your cancer diagnosis. Rehabilitation is the key to getting there.
Immediately After Surgery: Time to Rest
Expect to rest and limit arm movements in the first week or more after surgery, especially if you’ve had a mastectomy, double mastectomy or surgery to remove lymph nodes. During this time period your body is healing, blood and lymphatic-collecting vessels are repairing themselves, and you’ll likely have a drain to help collect excess fluids at the surgical site.
Generally, you should keep the arm on the side of your surgery below 90 degrees during this recovery period. Tasks like eating and drinking are fine, but you shouldn’t do any heavy lifting. When your doctor approves, you can start with gentle exercises such as shoulder rolls, deep breathing and walking around the house.
Sleeping may be difficult and painful. Using a wedge or pillows that allow you to sleep on an angle may help.
The Next Step: Physical Therapy and Exercise
Rehabilitation is important for anyone who has had or will have breast cancer surgery, radiation or chemotherapy. After you’ve passed the acute phase of your recovery from breast cancer surgery, your doctor will advise when it’s time to start physical therapy and exercise.
Physical therapy is designed to help reduce swelling, improve range of motion, increase your energy and return you to your normal life. Being more active also helps with your prognosis. Studies show that women with breast cancer who exercise for three to five hours per week improved their survival rate as much as 40 percent over less active breast cancer patients. Simply walking on a treadmill slowly provided a significant benefit.
During your first physical therapy appointment, the physical therapist will:
- Examine the site of your surgery
- Assess the pain and swelling
- Check your current level of mobility
- Take measurements of your arm and shoulder
- Assess your posture
You’ll also discuss a plan to help you reach your goals, which will take into account your lifestyle, the type of work you do and your previous level of activity. The physical therapist will design an exercise plan specifically tailored to your needs. Some of these exercises will be done at the physical therapy facility, and you’ll do others on your own at home.
Keep in mind that physical therapy is not like other exercises that you may have done in the past. The goal is not to push your body to its limits or break it down. While you will be working hard, you should leave the appointment feeling less pain, be more mobilie and have more energy.
Everyone’s rehabilitation and physical therapy needs will be different, but the goal is the same: to get you back to normal life as quickly and safely as possible.