Researchers from the Netherlands in 2015 found that a combination of supervised strength and aerobic training during the early stages of breast cancer treatment reduces fatigue while helping patients increase muscle fitness.
Studies have also shown moderate exercise (30-60% of maximal heart rate) can help increase the efficacy of both radiation and chemotherapy treatments. With exercises there is an increased oxygen supply to the tumor cells that make them more “radiosensitive” and “chemosensative,” meaning they are more susceptible to the effects of the treatment.
More recently, a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) concluded that exercise and weight management are the most important lifestyle changes a breast cancer survivor can make to help prevent the reoccurrence of cancer.
As the U.S. commemorates Breast Cancer Awareness Month during October, Aurora Fry, DPT, of Alpine Physical Therapy’s westside Bend location, points out these and other studies in a growing collection of research that touts the important role physical therapists can play in breast cancer treatment — from general rehabilitation and prevention to the early diagnosis of potential complications following treatment.
“Physical therapy can play a critical role in improving the quality of life for breast cancer patients during and after treatment through hands-on interventions as well as therapeutic exercise,” Fry said. “The goal is to reduce pain while helping patients improve flexibility, strength and range of motion following treatment.”
For women battling with or who have survived breast cancer, physical therapy exists to alleviate the impact of surgery related to breast cancer treatment. Working closely with surgeons and oncologists, Fry says the ultimate goal of a PT is to help clients attain the highest level of function, getting them back on track toward the life they lived before diagnosis.
“Physical therapists are trained to help restore motion in patients following a mastectomy or axillary lymph node dissection, while at the same time guiding them toward return to their daily activities and lifestyles,” she said. Fry points to a few of the ways PT can help those affected by breast cancer:
Combat Fatigue: The Netherlands study mentioned above, which appeared in a recent issue of BMC Medicine, found that a supervised strength and conditioning regimen during the first 18 weeks of treatment helped breast cancer patients offset the deconditioning effects of chemotherapy. It also built muscle strength while increasing a feeling of “general self-efficacy and mastery” among patients. Cancer-related fatigue is very prevalent prior to and following diagnosis. Therapists will strive to learn and implement energy conservation techniques to help combat fatigue.
Early Diagnosis of Lymphedema: Physical therapists have taken on a greater role in the early detection of lymphedema, abnormal swelling of the arm and hand that may result when lymph nodes are removed or treated with radiation as a part of cancer treatment. Once detected, a PT can treat the early stages of the condition through massage, range-of-motion and strength exercise, and the use of compression sleeves.
Exercise for Prevention: Studies have shown that regular exercise and physical activity may actually lower the risk of the onset and reoccurrence of cancer (including breast cancer) when compared with living a sedentary lifestyle. Following cancer treatment, physical therapists like those on the Alpine Physical Therapy team can work with breast cancer survivors to establish an exercise program that maintains long-term strength, cardio fitness and overall functionality.