Q&A: Get Moving After Breast Cancer Surgery

UC San Diego runs a useful Q&A with Resie Collins, an occupational therapist and certified lymphedema therapist who specializes in breast cancer rehabilitation, on ways to “regain range of motion quickly and safely and return to normal activities of daily living.”

Question: “Who should receive breast cancer rehabilitation?”

Answer: “Male and female patients undergoing breast cancer surgery benefit from rehab as part of a comprehensive breast cancer treatment plan to proactively reduce the risk of developing side effects, such as muscle and joint tightness, decreased endurance, a swelling condition known as lymphedema, rigid scar tissue formation and cording or axillary web syndrome (AWS), often described as a visible cord that runs from the armpit down the arm.”

“There are patients who are afraid to move but the lack of physical activity can cause muscles to tighten up, making it more difficult to recover normal flexibility. Movement is a vital component to recovery after surgery. With simple exercises and normal activity, patients can regain range of motion and return to regular activities, which helps them recapture their independence.”

Q: “Why is it necessary?”

A: “When breast tissue is removed or cut during surgery, a person’s posture is affected and may create asymmetry in the upper body. Pain can cause a patient to use compensatory movements that change normal muscle action. It can also impact range of motion by making the person hesitant to move the afflicted arm. Any incision that creates scar tissue results in tightness along the skin and muscle. As occupational therapists, we guide a patient through exercises to help the person feel comfortable moving through pain.”

“Another aspect of our job is to educate a patient on how to reduce the risk of lymphedema, which can occur when lymph nodes are surgically removed or after radiation. If swelling does occur, we are trained in treating this condition with manual lymphatic draining massage techniques and compression bandaging. If cording or AWS occurs, we can perform manual stretching to reduce tightness and educate patients on appropriate exercises. Some patients say they wish they’d came in sooner when they see how much this can help the tightness that runs from the arm pit down the arm.”