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January 2024

Physical Therapy Recharges Breast Cancer Survivors

The research is clear: Exercise, such as walking 2.5 to 5 hours each week, helps breast cancer survivors live longer and enjoy life more. But breast cancer treatment—surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy—can be exhausting. During and after treatment, people may not view exercise as a priority, or they may be too tired to participate in a standard exercise program.

That’s where physical therapy (PT) comes in. PT especially designed for breast cancer survivors can help women safely regain their range of motion and strength while improving their mood.

Beating fatigue and growing stronger 

Cancer-related fatigue, one of the most common side effects of breast cancer treatment, keeps many from exercising. That’s a shame, because exercise relieves fatigue. A physical therapist can help boost self-confidence and stamina by suggesting coping strategies, such as scheduling demanding activities for times when energy levels are higher.

To accommodate fatigue, a physical therapist tailors an exercise plan so that it begins gradually with aerobic exercises such as riding a stationary bike with light resistance training. As the person grows stronger, the therapist will increase workout time and add more advanced exercises. They may choose to incorporate elements of yoga—a low-impact activity that has been shown to improve strength and flexibility.

Preventing and controlling lymphedema

Breast cancer or its treatments, such as the surgical removal of lymph nodes or radiation therapy, may result in lymphedema. In this condition, fluid from the lymphatic system can’t be absorbed into the bloodstream. Excess fluid may then collect in the arm next to the treated breast, causing swelling and soreness. Other symptoms include:

  • A tight feeling, pain, aching, or heaviness in the affected arm

  • Trouble flexing joints in the affected limb

Exercise, which helps promote lymph drainage, may reduce the symptoms of lymphedema. Other PT care for lymphedema includes massage and bandaging.


Have you or someone you know been treated for breast cancer? Make a healthy recovery your top priority. Ask your healthcare provider how outpatient PT could improve your life.






Online Medical Reviewer: Brian McDonough, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2023
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