October 13

Physical Therapy Benefits for Breast Cancer Patients


The latest breast cancer statistics indicate that about one in eight U.S. women, or approximately 12 percent, will develop invasive breast cancer at some point in their lives. In 2016, an estimated 246,660 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 61,000 new cases of non-invasive breast cancer.

It is estimated that there will be more than 2.8 million women with a history of breast cancer in the U.S. in 2016.  This number includes women currently being treated and women who have finished treatment. With current innovations in treatment and prevention, breast cancer incidence rates in the U.S. have been dropping since the year 2000 and continue to drop each year. Since breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women, next to skin cancer, its treatment continues to be at the forefront of the healthcare industry.

Typically, treatments for breast cancer can include chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. However, an integrated multidisciplinary approach to care, including rehabilitation (physical and occupational therapy), can help identify an individual patient’s needs in order to maximize optimal recovery and return to full function.

Studies show that exercise in general increases the speed of recovery decreases fatigue and reduces pain while increasing one’s range of motion and strength. Skilled physical therapists are essential in assisting a person in maintaining and gaining strength, flexibility, endurance, and maximizing function.

A physical therapist can provide education on arm exercises that will stretch and strengthen the muscles of the chest, back, shoulders, and arms. This assists in preventing stiffness and decreasing pain. Increased flexibility can improve a patient’s posture, thus decreasing pain. A physical therapist will work to develop an individualized exercise program with progressions that are specific to each patient and her needs at all stages of their recovery or even years after their recovery from breast cancer.

Physical therapists also work to assist with the management of scarring after surgical procedures as well as preventing nerve irritation and tension, which can lead to arm pain, sensation changes, and even neck pain if left untreated.

As a part of the treatment and recovery team, the physical or occupational therapist will monitor the patient’s progression and address any issues that arise, including lymphedema, a post-surgery complication that causes swelling in one of the arms, due to blockage of lymph passages and the body’s inability to drain fluid from the surrounding tissues. This can occur after the removal of lymph nodes and treatments that interrupt the normal flow of the lymphatic system.

Healthcare providers that work together as a team optimize a patient’s healing and recovery.

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