By Melissa Carlton, PT, CLT, CES, CSCS
Director of Rebound’s Lymphedema and Oncology Program, Bend North Clinic
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and it also is National Physical Therapy Month. As a physical therapist and certified lymphedema therapist I am very passionate about working with patients during their journey with breast cancer. Physical therapists (and occupational therapists) play an important role in recovery after breast cancer treatments. These treatments can include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Patients can experience side effects from treatments that can impact their daily lives.
Common side effects can include soft tissue adhesions and scarring, impaired neck and shoulder mobility, decreased upper extremity strength and function,lymphedema, increased sensitivity and pain, fatigue, numbness and tingling in the fingers and toes. All of this can lead to difficulty with daily activities and a loss of independence. Many patients continue to experience these lingering symptoms and side effects long after their cancer treatment has concluded. Physical therapy can significantly reduce or even eliminate many of the impairments patients with breast cancer experience. Physical therapists use manual therapy, range of motion and strengthening exercises and modalities to address these impairments and help restore function.
When possible, I recommend patients have their physical therapy evaluation prior to surgery. This is so I can get a baseline limb volume measurement and assess pre-surgery range of motion, posture and strength. Baseline limb volume measurements are important to assess for lymphedema, which is a condition that can occur in patients after treatments for breast cancer. Lymphedema is the result of damage to the lymphatic system. Mastectomies, lumpectomies with lymph node removal and radiation are some of the causes of lymphedema in the breast cancer population. Symptoms include swelling in the arm, breast or trunk, a tightness or heaviness in the affected area or changes in the texture of the skin. If you begin to experience symptoms, consult your doctor or a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT).
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with breast cancer, I recommend asking your surgeon or medical oncologist for a referral to physical therapy. Often patients will be told they don’t need to go to therapy unless they develop lymphedema. I recommend advocating for yourself to learn the tools to help restore your function after treatment for breast cancer.
Click here for more information about Rebound’s Lymphedema Management and Oncology Rehabilitation Program.