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For Everyone Touched By Cancer

What Exercises Should You Do After Breast Cancer Surgery?

Written by Cancer Care Parcel on 
2nd March, 2024
Updated: 2nd March, 2024
Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

Breast cancer surgery can lead to arm and shoulder movement difficulty. So it is important to be physically active after the surgery to improve your healing process. This can help you get back to your daily activities on time. The reasons why exercise plays a crucial role in post-operative recovery are discussed in another article. In this article, we focus on the guidelines and the type of exercise that you can do after mastectomy or breast reconstruction and other breast surgeries.

By adhering to these comprehensive guidelines for exercising safely after breast cancer surgery, you can significantly enhance your chances of experiencing a smooth and successful recovery journey. By incorporating appropriate exercise strategies tailored to your unique needs and circumstances, you not only promote physical healing but also minimize the risk of complications and optimize your overall health and well-being.

Consultation with Healthcare Professionals

Prior to initiating any exercise program, it's imperative to consult with healthcare professionals, including your surgeon, oncologist, and physical therapist. They can provide personalized recommendations based on your specific medical history, type of surgery, and current health status. They will assess your physical condition, identify any contraindications or precautions, and tailor an exercise plan to meet your individual needs and goals. This is a good time for you to discuss any concerns or questions you may have regarding exercise, including potential risks, safety precautions, and appropriate exercise modalities.

Start Slow and Gradually Progress

After receiving clearance from your healthcare team, start with low-intensity exercises and gradually increase the duration, frequency, and intensity over time. Begin with gentle movements such as walking, stretching, and range of motion exercises to gradually build strength, flexibility, and endurance. Listen to your body's signals and avoid pushing yourself too hard or too fast, especially during the initial stages of recovery. Pay attention to any signs of fatigue, discomfort, or pain, and adjust your exercise intensity accordingly.

Focus on Specific Exercises Targeting Affected Areas

Customize your workout regimen to target the regions impacted by breast cancer surgery, such as the chest, shoulders, and arms. Integrate specialized exercises aimed at enhancing shoulder flexibility, arm muscle strength, and lymphatic flow. These exercises might encompass shoulder rotations, wall climbs, arm rotations, and mild stretching routines. Collaborate with a physical therapist or accredited fitness professional to devise a holistic rehabilitation plan tailored to your individual requirements and constraints.

Listening to the Body and Respecting Limits

It is essential to be attentive to your body's reactions during exercise and modify your routine accordingly. If you encounter any pain, discomfort, or unfamiliar symptoms, it is crucial to halt exercising and seek guidance from your healthcare provider promptly. Respect the boundaries of your body and refrain from pushing beyond your limits or ignoring signs of discomfort. Allow sufficient time for rest and recovery between workout sessions to prevent exhaustion and facilitate optimal healing. Stay vigilant for potential indications of lymphedema, such as swelling, sensations of heaviness, or tightness in the affected arm or hand. Refrain from engaging in activities that may exacerbate lymphatic congestion, such as lifting heavy objects or repetitive arm movements, to safeguard against complications and support your recovery process.

Importance of Proper Nutrition and Hydration

Listening to your body and respecting its limits is paramount when engaging in physical activity. Pay close attention to the signals your body sends during exercise, such as discomfort, fatigue, or changes in breathing. If you experience any pain or unusual sensations, it's essential to pause and assess the situation. Pushing through pain can lead to injury or exacerbate existing conditions. Instead, honor your body's cues by modifying your activity level or taking a break when needed. Recognize that rest and recovery are integral parts of any fitness routine, allowing your body to recuperate and adapt to the demands placed upon it. By tuning into your body's needs and heeding its warnings, you can maintain a safe and sustainable approach to exercise, promoting overall well-being and long-term health.

5 Guidelines for exercising safely after breast cancer surgery

Range of Motion Exercises

  1. Arm Circles: Stand or sit comfortably with your arms extended to the sides. Slowly rotate your arms in small circles, gradually increasing the size of the circles as tolerated. This exercise helps improve shoulder mobility and flexibility.
  2. Shoulder Rolls: Begin by standing or sitting with your arms relaxed at your sides. Roll your shoulders forward in a circular motion, then reverse the direction to roll them backward. Shoulder rolls help alleviate tension and stiffness in the shoulder joints.
  3. Wall Climbing: Stand facing a wall and place your fingertips lightly against the wall at shoulder height. Slowly walk your fingers up the wall as far as comfortable, then walk them back down. This exercise stretches the chest muscles and improves the shoulder range of motion.

Strength-Training Exercises

  1. Modified Push-Ups: Start in a kneeling position with your hands placed shoulder-width apart on the floor. Lower your chest toward the ground while keeping your back straight, then push back up to the starting position. Modified push-ups help strengthen the chest, shoulders, and arms without putting excessive strain on the surgical site.
  2. Bicep Curls with Light Weights: Hold a light dumbbell or resistance band in each hand with your palms facing upward. Keeping your elbows close to your sides, bend your arms to lift the weights toward your shoulders, then slowly lower them back down. Bicep curls target the muscles in the front of the upper arms.
  3. Tricep Dips: Sit on a stable chair or bench with your hands gripping the edge beside your hips and your fingers pointing forward. Lift your hips off the seat and slowly lower your body by bending your elbows, then push back up to the starting position. Tricep dips strengthen the muscles on the back of the upper arms.

Cardiovascular Exercises

  1. Walking: Start with short, leisurely walks and gradually increase the duration and intensity as tolerated. Walking is a low-impact cardiovascular exercise that promotes circulation, boosts energy levels, and supports overall health and well-being.
  2. Swimming: Swimming or water aerobics provide a gentle yet effective cardiovascular workout that is easy on the joints. The buoyancy of water reduces impact and supports the body, making it ideal for individuals recovering from breast cancer surgery.
  3. Cycling: Whether outdoors or on a stationary bike, cycling is an excellent way to improve cardiovascular fitness and lower body strength. Start with a comfortable pace and gradually increase resistance and duration over time.

Flexibility Exercises

  1. Yoga: Practicing yoga can improve flexibility, balance, and relaxation. Gentle yoga poses, such as seated twists, cat-cow stretches, and child's pose, can help alleviate tension in the chest, shoulders, and back while promoting a sense of calm and well-being.
  2. Pilates: Pilates focuses on core strength, stability, and flexibility, making it particularly beneficial for individuals recovering from breast cancer surgery. Pilates exercises can be modified to accommodate different fitness levels and physical abilities.
  3. Stretching Routines: Incorporate a variety of stretches targeting the chest, shoulders, arms, and back into your exercise routine. Hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds and repeat several times to improve flexibility and relieve muscle tightness and discomfort.

By incorporating these diverse exercises into your recovery regimen, you can promote overall physical fitness, enhance range of motion and flexibility, build strength and endurance, and support your body's healing process after breast cancer surgery. As always, consult with your healthcare provider before starting any new exercise program, and listen to your body's signals to ensure safe and effective participation.

Addressing Common Concerns and Precautions

Addressing exercise concerns and precautions after breast cancer surgery is paramount for promoting safe and effective rehabilitation. Scar tissue formation, a natural part of the healing process, can potentially impede movement and cause discomfort. Therefore, integrating gentle massage techniques using moisturizing creams or oils can aid in enhancing tissue flexibility and circulation. Additionally, incorporating scar mobilization exercises, such as gentle stretching and rolling motions, helps break up adhesions and improve scar pliability. It's crucial to steer clear of direct sunlight exposure to the surgical site, as UV radiation may exacerbate scarring and pigmentation changes. Seeking guidance from a physical therapist or scar management specialist can offer invaluable insights into tailored scar tissue mobilization techniques and interventions, ensuring a gradual and safe return to physical activity.

Managing pain during exercise is vital for optimizing recovery. Pain levels post-surgery can vary, and it's essential to address them appropriately to avoid exacerbating discomfort. Over-the-counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can be utilized under healthcare provider guidance to alleviate mild to moderate pain. Complementary pain management strategies, including ice packs, heat therapy, relaxation techniques, and guided imagery, can also provide relief during exercise sessions. Engaging in low-impact exercises and movement therapies, like yoga, tai chi, or physical therapy, facilitates muscle relaxation, enhances circulation, and supports pain relief. Promptly communicating any persistent or worsening pain to healthcare providers ensures timely intervention and optimal management of exercise-related discomfort.

Understanding exercise contraindications and precautions is crucial for mitigating potential risks and ensuring a safe exercise regimen post-surgery. Certain activities may be contraindicated or necessitate modifications based on individual factors such as surgical technique, disease stage, and overall health status. High-impact or strenuous exercises, such as heavy lifting or contact sports, should be avoided to prevent undue stress on the surgical site or compromised tissues. Similarly, caution should be exercised when performing activities involving repetitive or overhead arm movements to minimize the risk of shoulder impingement or exacerbation of existing shoulder issues. Individuals who have also undergone radiation therapy should be mindful of skin sensitivity and potential limitations on certain exercises.

Consulting with healthcare providers before initiating any new exercise program or activity is essential to ensure personalized recommendations and mitigate potential risks. Vigilance for signs of complications or adverse reactions during exercise sessions and seeking prompt medical attention when necessary are integral aspects of a comprehensive post-operative exercise plan, fostering a safe and effective recovery journey.

By addressing these common concerns and taking appropriate precautions, individuals can minimize the risk of complications, promote optimal healing, and facilitate a smoother recovery following breast cancer surgery.

Further reading

Why Does Exercise Play Such a Crucial Role in Post-Operative Recovery

Support and Comfort: The Importance of Post Mastectomy Bras

Breast Cancer Tips: 7 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Had Breast Cancer

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