Many women with breast cancer receive radiation therapy as part of their breast cancer treatment. The goal of radiation therapy is to get rid of any cancer cells in the chest wall that were not treated by chemotherapy or surgery alone.
The Role of Physical Therapy
The role of a physical therapist (PT) during this time is crucial. Ideally, physical therapists are able to assess the patient before radiation therapy is started, to get baseline measures for shoulder range of motion and biomechanics, joint mobility, and lymphedema to better understand how these may change with radiation. If the patient cannot lie down with his/her arms overhead, PT can help with hands on techniques and giving the patient exercises to make that position as comfortable as possible, as oftentimes the radiation treatment occurs daily for 6 weeks.
Physical therapy may also continue through radiation treatment, to help keep the shoulder and chest flexible so that the radiation position is as comfortable as possible. In some studies radiation increases the risk of lymphedema, so proactive care and treatment are essential to keep swelling at a minimum. Radiation may also temporarily decrease shoulder flexibility, and hands on treatment as well as exercises for home will help return the patient to full motion as quickly and safely as possible.
Renata Beaman, PT, MS, MA, OCS, CLT is a Breast Cancer Rehabilitation Specialist who has worked almost exclusively in oncology physical therapy since 2003. If you are going to have radiation as part of your treatment plan for breast cancer, talk to your physician about a PT visit to ensure that you receive the most comprehensive care possible.
Cancer Rehabilitation: Use of evidence-based manual therapy and exercise to help return people to their prior level of function during and after cancer treatment. This includes evaluationprior to surgery as well as treatment through chemotherapy, radiation, initial and reconstructive therapies, and years afterwards if difficulties persist.
Lymphedema: education, risk reduction, and treatment.
Orthopaedic Rehabilitation (neck, back, shoulder, hip, knee, and other injuries): Minimize pain and function (flexibility, strength, daily movement patterns) to allow people to lead their daily lives without being limited by pain.