How physical therapy helps breast cancer treatment side effects

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

NOVEMBER 13, 2019

Breast cancer survivor receives physical therapy

This is a special guest blog from Julianne Beck, who specializes in physical therapy (PT) for women with breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women besides skin cancer. Hence, it makes sense that for so long the only focus was on fighting and defeating the cancer. Now that medicine has made great advancements, many women are surviving breast cancer. In fact, as of January 2019, over 3 million survivors of breast cancer are living in the United States alone.

This is real progress, but we as healthcare providers now have to take responsibility for the survivors and understand that the ramifications of treatment do not stop when treatment ends. Research shows that many women are unaware of the side effects of breast cancer treatment, and are surprised to learn that things like fatigue, pain, and impaired arm movement may persist long after treatment has ended. These lingering symptoms can be reminders of the cancer and can increase the fear of recurrence.

I want to highlight what a physical therapist is and does, and some of the common side effects of breast cancer treatment that women face that physical therapists are equipped to evaluate and treat.

What is a physical therapist?

Today's Physical Therapist is educated at the doctoral level and has the training to evaluate and diagnose problems or impairments that keep you from functioning at an optimal level. PTs also can predict impairments that may arise after surgery and implement strategies and exercises that can prevent or mitigate some of the effects of treatment which although expected, you do not need to live with.

Physical therapists in essence, are the quality of life specialists who focus on function and mobility. We are movement experts who are trained to educate and treat people, empowering them and allowing them to function in all of the activities they need or want to do. Additionally, physical therapists are educators who can help you understand the side effects of your treatment; what effects are part of your new normal and what are not. Research shows that less than 2% of modifiable physical impairments in cancer patients are treated and this is what we are trying to change!

How physical therapists can help cancer patients

If you see a physical therapist before or during your cancer treatment, he/she can help you understand the treatments you are going through, as well as the side effects which may impact your posture, ability to move or function. They will educate you on how to maximize your best possible outcome while minimizing your risks from treatment such as:

  • Difficulty moving one or both arms
  • Loss of balance or falls
  • Numbness in fingers or toes
  • General pain or shoulder pain
  • General fatigue
  • Weight Gain
  • Lymphedema

Looking to find a physical therapist who specializes in oncology or cancer rehabilitation? Ask your doctor for a referral, check out the American Physical Therapy Association's Find a PT directory, or learn more about BIDMC's Physical Therapy services.

Julianne Beck, PT, is currently pursuing a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree at Boston University's Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

Have you used a physical therapist as part of your breast cancer treatment or healing? Join the BIDMC Cancer Community and share your story.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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