Surgery for removal of cancer can be tough on the body; pain and swelling are common, and often, as in the case of mastectomy, arms need to be retrained to perform even the most basic tasks. I remember I was surprised that I could not pull a sweater over my head, wash my own hair or even get a glass out of the cabinet. I was told I could and should exercise. While I likely over-did things by walking the stairs in my building upon returning from the hospital, I knew that my recovery would be quicker if I got moving. However, I knew I had to be careful, a lesson I learned after my stair climbing; had I not had the sense to go right to bed, I would have collapsed on the floor. I also embraced massage as I was told that massage would relax me and help reduce the swelling. The road to recovery is long, but help along the way is good medicine.
Physical therapy is very helpful post-surgery. Physical therapists work with patients to alleviate physical issues that may arise from surgery or medical treatment for cancer. Through hands on interventions and therapeutic exercise, therapists help patients improve flexibility, strength, endurance and range of motion following treatment, thus improving their function and quality of life. Physical therapists trained in lymphedema can be especially helpful if you suffer from or are at risk for this condition. I had a wonderful therapist, Amy Shapses, who helped me regain the use of my arms by instructing me in specific exercises to regain my strength and range of motion. Her sessions hastened my recovery, mentally as well as physically. Physical therapy is covered by insurance companies, so be sure to ask for a prescription.
In the past, patients were often advised to rest; now, doctors are advising their patients to get moving. Patients undergoing treatment, as well as those who have completed treatment benefit from exercise. Exercise helps patients feel better, enhances quality of life and reduces side effects such as fatigue and anxiety. Exercise and maintaining a healthy weight may reduce the chance for recurrence. How much exercise is ideal? That depends… start slow and work your way up to 30 and then 45 minutes a day, and increase your intensity as you go along. Walking, jogging and cycling are great options, but don’t forget strength training. Many cancer patients are not able to perform the same activities as they had pre-surgery, so until you regain your strength and range of motion, you may need some assistance. If you use a trainer, be sure that he or she fully understands your particular limitations and needs, and again, find a lymphedema specialist if you suffer from this condition. Many organizations offer free exercise classes for cancer patients and survivors, so ask your doctor if there are services available in your area. A few I know of who specialize in post-cancer care are the Lahey Clinic/ YMCA of Greater Boston and Strength for Life in New York. Strength for life also offers free wellness retreats, which can help patients and survivors move forward in their journey.
Many patients are fearful of massage as they fear pain or discomfort or that it will in some way encourage lingering cancer cells to spread throughout the body. On the contrary, massage helps reduce stress, post-surgery swelling and pain is recommended for patients. Massage, acupuncture, nutritional therapy and other treatments associated with complementary medicine can support patients during their journey, and more and more allopathic (conventional) cancer facilities are incorporating integrative medicine into their programs.
The cancer journey is not an easy one, so laugh, love, cry, and take advantage of all that is available to make your journey more successful.
Elyn Jacobs is President of Elyn Jacobs Consulting, Inc. and a breast cancer survivor. She helps women diagnosed with cancer to navigate the process of treatment and care, and she educates about how to prevent recurrence and new cancers. She is passionate about helping others get past their cancer and into a cancer-free life.