October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. At ProFysio, we encourage those being treated for breast cancer to consider physical therapy to aid in their rehabilitation after treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Upon diagnosis, women may even have “pre-habilitation” to prepare for their prescribed treatment plan. Effective physical therapy can help breast cancer patients cope better with the physical and emotional side effects of common cancer treatments.
Common side effects of breast cancer treatments that can be improved with physical therapy include:
Scar tissue adhesions: This can happen after breast cancer surgery, when two areas of tissue that are not normally joined are bound together. These adhesions may form from surgery or radiation, and the resulting side effects can include nerve pain and numbness, among others.
- How physical therapy can help: Scars can be reduced through techniques such as massage, taping, or stretching. Scar tissue remodeling can help tissue tolerate forces placed on it throughout the day. Another form of therapy to address scars is the Graston technique, a treatment that uses metal tools to gradually release adhesions. Kinesiology tape may be applied along the lines of the scar to provide low intensity stretching of the tissues.
Lymphedema: This is the collection of lymph fluid underneath the skin. It frequently happens to breast cancer patients who have had lymph nodes removed as a part of their surgery, and it can cause swelling in the affected area, a feeling of tightness, and pain or redness in the affected arm or hand.
- How physical therapy can help: There is no cure, but physical therapy can assist in treatment. Your physical therapist can even provide you with a compression sleeve before any surgery, which applies pressure around the arm to help drain the lymph fluid. Manual lymphatic drainage is a special type of massage that can also help with this.
Fatigue: This symptom can happen during and after cancer treatment, and it is frequently disabling. It often presents with other symptoms, including pain, trouble sleeping, and depression.
- How physical therapy can help: Although it is counterintuitive, exercise can improve cancer-related fatigue. Prescribed physical activity of low to moderate intensity can significantly reduce cancer-related fatigue both during treatment and into survivorship.
Axillary web syndrome: Also called cording, this is a frequent breast cancer treatment side effect that may occur in at least 30% of patients. This often happens after breast cancer surgery which removes lymph nodes. It involves palpable cord-like structures in the axillary (armpit) region, where lymph nodes are most commonly removed, because this is the area where the breasts drain their lymph tissue.
- How physical therapy can help: Several case studies have suggested physical therapy to resolve cording and stretch the cords to improve physical function. Stretching and flexibility exercises can improve pain-free range of motion, and you can continue doing these exercises on your own. Gentle massaging of the cord tissue pulls the tissue on an outstretched arm. This can cause the cord to snap, which is usually not painful and brings immediate relief. Your physical therapist may also recommend applying warm, moist pads to the cords, and undergoing low-level laser therapy to break down hardened scar tissue.
Postmastectomy pain syndrome (PMPS): A mastectomy is the complete surgical removal of breast tissues, and may involve one or both breasts, although some patients who have had lumpectomies, which is a breast-conserving surgery that only removes the tumor, can also have PMPS. The symptoms of PMPS may include nerve pain in the chest wall, axillary region and/or arm.
- How physical therapy can help: Your breast surgeon or oncologist may recommend physical therapy to improve functional limitations and significantly improve your strength and range of motion. This is a much-preferred treatment method to opioid painkiller prescription. Passive and active stretching with the guidance of a physical therapist can help improve pain and increase range of motion.
This month, ProFysio will focus on breast cancer awareness as it relates to physical therapy. Read our blog this month for a 4-part series on these topics. Contact us at (732) 812-5200 if you’d like to book an appointment – no doctor’s referral is required.