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Is Physiotherapy Good For Breast Cancer Patients?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women across the world. Almost 1 in 8 women is expected to develop breast cancer at some stage of their lives. With early detection through routine mammogram screening, scheduled clinical breast exam and monthly self-breast exam, the survival rate of breast cancer patients has significantly increased.


Cancer treatment is a long and tedious process and may result in various side effects and physical disabilities in patients. The good news is these side effects and physical disabilities go away with time. However, certain side effects like development of cording, lymphoedema, shoulder pain will require treatment. Often time, if left untreated, these side effects may lead to lifestyle inconvenience and reduced quality of life. Physiotherapy for cording, lymphoedema, and shoulder pain can help to alleviate discomfort, limited shoulder movement and deformed arm due to these side effects from breast cancer treatment. All you need to do is seek the advice of a breast cancer physiotherapist.


What Is Breast Cancer?


Breast cancer is a disease in which cells in the breast grow and mutate unusually. This creates a mass of tissue in your breast that is also referred to as a tumour. This tumour can increase its size and travel to other parts of the body and in most cases, it is often life-threatening.


Some common symptoms of breast cancer are a lump in the breast, darkening of the breast, a change in the colour of your breast, a change in the size of the breast, and blood-stained clear fluid discharge from the breast. If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your OB/Gynae immediately. If there is early diagnosis of breast cancer, there are more treatment options available.


Breast Cancer Treatment Methods


The treatment of breast cancer often involves surgery followed by radiotherapy and other methods. Common breast cancer removal surgeries are:

  • Lumpectomy is the surgery in which the lump (tumor) is removed from the breast through surgery and is followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy sessions.

  • Mastectomy is a treatment method in which breasts are removed wither completely or partially to remove the tumor. Sometimes, other tissues and lymph nodes near the breast are also removed as part of the treatment.

  • Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy is a biopsy in which the surgeon searches and removes only a few lymph nodes that might be cancerous or may become cancerous.

  • Axillary clearance is also known as lymph nodes dissection which involved the removal of all the axillary lymph nodes on the affected side. This procedure is usually performed in patient with more advanced cancer. Patients with axillary clearance tends to developed a complication called cording or axillary web syndrome.


Side Effects Of Breast Cancer Treatment


Majority of women are unaware of the side effects of breast cancer treatment. Consult a breast cancer Physiotherapist during your cancer treatment to better help you understand the possible treatment options that tackles the side effects such as pain, altered posture, arm swelling, stiff shoulder and arm movement, hindered daily functions and poor quality of life.


1. Lymphoedema


Removal of lymph nodes during cancer treatment may result in lymphoedema, an irreversible swelling of the arm and breast on the same side of the affected lymph nodes. It is a condition in which lymph fluid is not drained and results in swelling, pain, decreased arm movement, and arm deformity. The risk of developing lymphoedema depends largely on the type of breast cancer treatment involved. With combination of axillary clearance and radiotherapy being the highest risk of developing an arm or breast lymphoedema. Despite its non life threatening nature, lymphoedema is still a progressive condition which can progress from stage 0 to stage 4 (as shown in the picture) if no treatment is rendered. Currently, there is no definitive cure for lymphoedema but with certified lymphoedema therapy also known as complex decongestive therapy, it can decrease the symptoms and help with lymph fluid drainage. Complex decongestive therapy includes a special type of massage called manual lymphatic drainage that drains the excessive fluid in the arm by diverting it to healthy lymph nodes in other parts of the body. It is combined with a 4 layered compression bandaging over the affected arm for better control of the swelling. A compression armsleeve and/ or glove is later prescribed when swelling has reduced and stabilised.


Intermittent pneumatic compression that mimics the rhythmic movement of MLD is also an option to reduce sensation of heaviness and tightness in one with more severe arm lymphoedema. This is available in The Physio Studio Singapore at no additional cost.

2. Cording


Cording or axillary web syndrome is a common and treatable side effect of scarring due to axillary clearance. In cording, the patient will experience an excruciating sharp pain in the underarm area while lifting the arm. It gradually develops and becomes visible with time. You can see a cord or string or more than one cord creating a web.


Fortunately, physiotherapy for cording has proven to be a successful method of treating cording. Consult a specialist breast cancer physiotherapist to resolve your cording. You will be required to perform shoulder and arm stretches, scar massages, and nerve flossing exercises to loosen the cord. If left untreated, cording can lead to a frozen shoulder, serious pain, and an inability to move the arm.


3. Pain


Tightness in the chest and underarm is common after mastectomy or radiotherapy. This tightness leads to pain and the inability to move the arm and perform daily tasks. Experts recommend starting physiotherapy as soon as four weeks after the treatment and getting a licensed physiotherapist to conduct the physiotherapy sessions.


4. Numbness & Tingling


A patient may also experience numbness and tingling in the arm or fingers due to nerve damage, swelling, or muscular tension because of extension radiotherapy and chemotherapy sessions. An expert physiotherapist will be able to resolve this issue with certain stretching and exercise program.


5. Stiffness In Arm


Breast cancer treatment surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy may greatly affect a patient’s arm movement. The stiffness in the arm makes it difficult to raise the arm above the head or to reach behind the back. These movement limitations may also affect the radiotherapy treatment. Therefore, doctors often recommend physiotherapy sessions to improve arm movement so as to avoid delay in cancer treatment.


6. Phantom Breast Syndrome


Phantom breast syndrome is a condition that causes either painful or non painful sensations in the affected "breast" even after mastectomy. Patients may report of pain and discomfort, itching, pins and needles sensations, tingling, pressure, burning, and throbbing sensation. This syndrome is due to nerve damage and abnormal nerve response Physiotherapy.


We hope this guide will help you understand the importance and role of physiotherapy and lymphoedema therapy in breast cancer treatment procedures. If you are looking for an expert breast cancer physiotherapist and lymphoedema therapist, feel free to contact us. At The Physio Studio, we have a team of highly qualified and licensed physiotherapists who work closely with our patients to manage or reduce the side effects that come with breast cancer treatment.


Regardless of whether you need a lymphatic treatment or a breast cancer physiotherapist, The Physio Studio is your one-stop solution to all physiotherapy needs. Contact us today for more information.

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