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Physical Therapy and Cancer Treatment

By Sport & Spine Physical Therapy


Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women other than skin cancer. Approximately 12% of females will be diagnosed with breast cancer some time in their lives. Fortunately today, awareness, early recognition, and treatments are continuing to improve. As a result of medical advances, more people are winning the fight against this dreaded disease. The average age for breast cancer diagnosis is only 62 years young. Which means these active adults will need help recovering and getting back to the active lifestyle they had prior to their diagnosis.


October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. October is also National Physical Therapy month. It's no coincidence that these two go hand in hand.


There are many forms of cancer treatments available today, such as medication, radiation, chemotherapy, and possible surgery. Some of the side effects resulting from cancer treatment can be very debilitating such as: weight loss, fatigue, deconditioning, weakness, nerve pain, loss of range of motion and flexibility, decreased balance, postural changes, and inability to work. Females undergoing breast cancer treatment may also be susceptible to frozen shoulder - a painful condition in the shoulder resulting in significant loss of motion and mobility.




How do you know if you may need physical therapy after breast cancer treatment? Talk to your physician if you're experiencing any of the following symptoms:


1) Pain - especially in the shoulder, neck, or arm areas.

2) Numbness or tingling - especially in the arm, hand, or fingers

3) Loss of mobility or motion -especially in the shoulder or neck

4) Weakness

5) General fatigue

6) Inability to work


How physical therapy can help.

Many of the above symptoms are often related. Following surgery such as a mastectomy for example, there may be a period of time when shoulder motion is limited due to healing tissues. As scar tissue forms around the chest and shoulder areas, this can affect shoulder and upper extremity mobility, cause postural changes bringing the shoulders and head forward which can lead to potential neck pain and irritation of the nerves exiting the spine. Physical therapists can utilize manual techniques and corrective exercises to decrease scar tissue, improve range of motion, flexibility, address any postural changes, improve strength and conditioning, and address any tension in the nerves. If the patient is off work for a significant period of time, the therapist can put together a specific conditioning program tailored toward return to work, especially if the goal is to return to a more physical job. The therapist can then test the patient to make sure they are fully capable to perform all work-related tasks before being released by their physician to return to work.


The recovery process doesn't stop once the medications, chemotherapy, or surgeries are over. Talk to your physician regarding physical therapy and let the functional recovery begin.

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