Helping Patients Navigate Breast Cancer Recovery with Movement

October 20, 2021

Getting a mastectomy can be a difficult journey, but physical rehab can help.

From surgery to radiation and chemotherapy, treatment for breast cancer can be extensive and exhausting, both physically and emotionally. That’s why physical movement is essential to the recovery process after breast cancer treatment, especially for those who have undergone surgery. To find out more about how physical movement and outpatient rehab can help people recover from a mastectomy, we spoke with Elizabeth Craft, MOTR/L, CLT, an Occupational Therapist at Jefferson Health – New Jersey.

How does a mastectomy impact movement?

Craft: Most patients who have a mastectomy will notice a change in the range of motion in their upper body—typically their shoulders. If it was a single mastectomy, you may only feel a difference on one side, while those who have a double mastectomy might feel the impact on both shoulders. And patients who have pre-existing conditions, like a rotator cuff injury, or those who are undergoing more complex surgery, may be more limited in their range of motion after a mastectomy.

How soon after surgery can patients start physical rehab?

Craft: Patients will receive a handout after surgery with rehab exercises to help them recover, and they can start whenever they feel comfortable. Most people will feel less resistance once their drains—tubes inserted to prevent fluid from collecting in the surgical area—are removed. The exercises should be performed at home, ideally every day, until you feel like you did before surgery. Those who have pre-existing conditions or complicated surgeries may be referred to outpatient rehabilitation to assist with their recovery.

Are there any risks to physical movement while recovering?

Craft: It depends on what kind of surgery you’ve had, but in general, it’s important to pay attention to your body during recovery. Be sure that your incision is healing properly. If it begins to reopen, reach out to your doctor right away. In addition, contact your doctor if you notice swelling in your arms - that could be an early sign of lymphedema, which is tissue-swelling caused by an accumulation of protein-rich fluid that's usually drained through the body's lymphatic system.

What else can patients do to help their bodies recover from a mastectomy?

Craft: I recommend getting back to your normal, everyday activities as much as possible. From cooking and cleaning, to self-care routines, these functional tasks help with your range-of-motion recovery. Remember to listen to your body, though: you want to get back to your routine as quickly as possible, but also want to allow your body to heal.

Learn more about breast cancer and the Comprehensive Breast Center at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center - Washington Township

Learn more about Occupational Therapy and other Rehabilitation services