4 Ways to Improve Your Breast Cancer Rehab

How to make the most of rehabilitation

Woman doing physical therapy

With guest contributor Sree Battu, MD, rehabilitation specialist

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When it comes to breast cancer, what comes after surgery or treatment can be just as important as the treatment itself.

Breast cancer rehabilitation can minimize the impact of treatment and improve your quality of life. But we are starting to realize that rehabilitation can do much more than that. In many cases, it can improve your odds of successful treatment and help you return to your usual activities sooner.

It all starts with education.

1. Educate yourself and ask questions

Learn as much as you can about your type of breast cancer. The more you know about your treatment and rehabilitation options, the better your chances of success.

For example, axillary surgery and radiation therapy may increase your risk for lymphedema, a cause of swelling in the arm. Education can help prepare you for what signs and symptoms to watch for, and early treatment of lymphedema can minimize its effects. Ask for a rehab appointment early so that you are ready to deal with lymphedema if it happens.

On the other hand, if you’re having reconstructive surgery, your plastic surgeon may want to delay rehabilitation while you heal. Timing is important.

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“The main goal of rehab is to restore your function to what it was before treatment — or even improve it if possible.”

Stephen Grobmyer, MD

Director of Breast Services

2. Talk about your goals and needs

The main goal of rehab is to restore your function to what it was before treatment — or even improve it if possible. But individual goals and needs are as different as each patient is. Sharing your needs and expectations can help your physicians improve your patient experience.

Do you play tennis or other sports? Ask your doctor if reconstructive surgery might create a muscle imbalance that affects your performance. Are you trying to get back to work quickly? Your rehab team can tailor a program that prepares you for workplace concerns. Are you a young mother? Rehabilitation can focus on strengthening your arm so you can hold and care for your children.

3. Take advantage of the team approach

The most effective programs feature a team of caregivers with different backgrounds, led by a doctor who specializes in rehabilitation. This doctor will assess your needs and help you craft the right program with the right people.

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For example, occupational therapists may help with basics such as bathing and dressing techniques and more complex issues such as adaptive equipment for work. Physical therapists work with you to strengthen your arms and shoulders to overcome pain, swelling and muscle imbalances. Speech therapists address cognitive issues such as difficulty with memory or planning, which sometime occurs after chemotherapy. A psychologist can help with emotional adjustment, anxiety or depression. A social worker can help you navigate insurance and find support groups.

Other team members may be involved, as well, depending on your medical, physical or emotional needs.

4. Stay on top of long-term concerns

Much of the rehabilitation process occurs in the months after surgery or treatment, but issues can come up years down the road.

For example, even mild cases of lymphedema can occur years after treatment. This is partly why education is so crucial. If you know the signs and symptoms of problems, and if you know to contact your doctor when you see them, you’ll be better prepared to overcome them.

When you have a breast cancer diagnosis, so many things are out of your control. But the rehab process, both in the short term and the long term, is something you can control. With the help of a care team, you can do this to help yourself heal, recover and thrive.

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Stephen Grobmyer, MD

Stephen Grobmyer, MD, is Section Head of Surgical Oncology and the Director of Breast Services at Cleveland Clinic.
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