Treatment after the breast cancer is gone

Statistics show that 1 in 8 women and 1 in 65,000 men

(Yes, men can get it too!) will be diagnosed with breast cancer over their life time.

As cancer treatments continue to improve, there are more and more living survivors. The 5-year survival rate following a diagnosis of breast cancer is now up to 90%[1]!

This is GREAT news for anyone receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer. One can now hope and believe that she/he can make it over this hurdle and through all the dreaded treatments required to completely free her/his body of this terrible invader!

As more people are surviving cancer diagnosis and treatment, health care professionals have had to take a deeper look at the effects of these treatments (and continued medication use) on the body and the quality of life of each individual FOLLOWING treatment.

It’s no longer enough to have just survived cancer.  Some may wonder, “What’s the point of surviving if I can’t really LIVE?” I’ve had a patient tell me that “Trying to get through the aftermath of cancer has been worse than getting through chemo!” She was willing to stop taking her post-treatment hormone blocker due to the side effects of joint pain, weakness, and fatigue.

The doctor has told you the cancer is gone, so why is the fight not over?

It is very likely that a surgery was performed as part of your treatment plan in order to remove the cancerous tissue. The extent of the surgery depends on the severity of the cancer and tissues affected, but you will likely have some limitations in mobility following your surgery due to pain, inflammation, and resulting scar tissue. If lymph nodes were also taken, this could further limit your mobility (axillary webbing) while also impacting your lymphatic system, leading to increase risk in developing lymphedema. The greater number of nodes taken, the greater your risk for lymphedema. It is important to be aware of these limitations and to take action to prevent and/or limit the side effects from surgery.

A movement professional, such as a physical therapist skilled in breast cancer rehabilitation, can help you formulate a plan to address these limitations with exercises and stretches that are safe for you and the phase of healing you are currently in. It is important to keep and progress your mobility while allowing for proper healing and avoidance of overtaxing your lymphatic system.

Radiation therapy can also impact the tissues and lead to impaired movement by causing decreased tissue elasticity and stiffness. Think of the last time you got a really bad sunburn. The tissue gets red, inflamed, and feels tight on your body. This is similar to what happens with radiation, though with a deeper penetration and a more localized surface area covered in a short amount of time. Once your skin is no longer red and inflamed, a physical therapist can perform manual techniques to assist in improving the mobility of this tissue as well as surrounding joints. This may ease your ability to get dressed in the morning or play with your kids.

The most common, well known side effect of chemotherapy is fatigue. Fatigue can be caused by anemia, weakness, peripheral neuropathy, nausea, and neutropenia which are also common side effects of chemo. About 80-96% of patients undergoing chemotherapy are affected by cancer related fatigue. (and 60-93% of patients undergoing radiation treatment).[1] Your body is being attacked on a systemic level in order to rid itself of cancer and it’s exhausting!

The last thing you probably want to do is participate in any sort of physical activity, but this may be just what you need. Moderate intensity of exercise can be beneficial for combating cancer related fatigue as well as assisting to heighten the efficacy of both chemotherapy and radiation.[1]

However, it is important that proper exercises are chosen and performed to the correct intensity in order to minimize risks and enhance benefits regarding energy, bone health, and lymphedema.  When it comes to developing an appropriate exercise plan for you, with your specific history and treatment protocol, a physical therapist trained in breast cancer rehabilitation can be the best resource for you! They can teach you safe exercises to perform and assist with progressing the exercises in a way that allows you to feel safe.

Unfortunately, the fight isn’t always over once the cancer is gone.

Your body has been through a lot and will need time to recover. However, it is important to know that you don’t have to go it alone and that the recovery process can be assisted with the help of a physical therapist.

At Apex Physical Therapy, our therapists have a multitude of specializations and certifications including PRI therapy, manual lymph drainage, women’s health, dry needling, vestibular re-education, and ASTYM to name a few, to assist you in getting your life back.

Feel free to contact us with any questions you may have regarding our treatment approach and what we have to offer in regards to your specific needs! We would love to help!;


[1] Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/index.htm

[1] Lyons, Michelle.  “Breast Cancer Survivorship” © 2019 MedBridge Inc.

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