October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Stretching and Strengthening Exercises Post Mastectomy have been shown to be Beneficial

October 21, 2019

Kristen Pierce, PT, DPT

The current conventional treatment for early stage breast cancer is mastectomy.  Radiation, chemotherapy, and hormone treatments may also be used.  Of the patients who undergo surgery, 7 out of 8 may experience some ongoing problems with shoulder/arm function, with most women presenting with more than one symptom.

Common problems that can occur post mastectomy are arm and breast swelling (lymphedema), shoulder stiffness, weakness, pain, and numbness.  These symptoms have been associated with a reduced quality of life. 

A randomized controlled trial published in Rehabilitation Oncology by Kilbreath et al was performed to determine if stretching and strength training early following mastectomy was effective in preventing these common arm problems.  The outcome measures used were a self-report of the patient’s quality of life and measurement of arm swelling.  The results were that women in the exercise group had less swelling and reported fewer arm and breast symptoms.  This study suggests that intervention with exercise leads to better overall outcomes.

This data supports the need for physical therapy post mastectomy. It also provides evidence that exercise early following breast cancer surgery does not cause immediate swelling in the affected arm. Physical therapists who have specialized training in breast cancer rehabilitation can provide the appropriate stretches and strengthening exercises post mastectomy to help relieve residual arm problems and improve a patient’s quality of life.  Physical therapy consisting of early exercises can help promote better outcomes for patients post mastectomy.

Our cancer rehabilitation team of physical therapists has specialized training and can provide individualized physical therapy interventions to patients with breast cancer to improve their quality of life.

If you have a question about our services or would like to schedule an appointment with our cancer rehabilitation team, please call us at 540-316-2680.

Reference: Kilbreath S, Refshauge K, Beith J, et al. Resistance and Stretching Shoulder Exercises Early Following Axillary Surgery for Breast Cancer. Rehabilitation Oncology. 2006:24:9-14.