The Importance of Physical Therapy During and After Breast Cancer Treatment

RAPID CITY, S.D. – Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer affecting women today. According to Kimberly Van Loan, MS OTR/L, CLT, a lymphedema and breast cancer specialist at Sundog Rehabilitation, breast cancer patients can benefit from physical therapy before, during, and after breast cancer treatment.

“Studies have shown that going through physical therapy or occupational therapy exercises can reduce depression, anxiety, lymphedema, and cancer-related fatigue,” said Van Loan.

Van Loan encourages breast cancer patients to come in for an initial evaluation, even before their treatment begins, if possible. This gives her and her team the chance to evaluate the patient’s condition and suggest exercises that can reduce symptoms during and after treatment.

Physical therapy becomes even more crucial following breast cancer treatment, whether that involves chemotherapy, surgery, or a combination of both. Performing targeted exercises can go a long way in reducing post-surgical lymphedema, which is swelling caused by a buildup of lymph, the clear fluid that helps the body filter waste. Lymphedema can be uncomfortable and even painful, and over time, may result in infections. Physical therapy can help reduce swelling by moving the fluid back into the lymph system.

“At Sundog, we take the patient through complete decongestive therapy to help get rid of swelling,” said Van Loan. “This includes manual lymph drainage, fitting of compression garments, bandage wrapping, if needed, and then, of course, specific exercises to help reduce the fluid build-up.”

During sessions, Van Loan also teaches patients how to do self-manual lymph drainage so that they can perform daily maintenance in between sessions. Exercises are tailored to each patient, depending on their symptomology and the type of surgeries they’ve had.

In addition to reducing lymphedema, physical therapy can also be helpful in reducing stiffness and tightness, as well as increasing range of motion and strength following surgery and chemotherapy.

Some breast cancer patients develop Axillary Web Syndrome, which is tightening of the connective tissue that’s in the armpit region. “It’s amazing how quickly after a breast tissue removal surgery patients start compensating with other muscles. Then all of a sudden, certain muscles get a little bit weaker, which can lead to pain,” said Van Loan. “With physical therapy, we can go in there and stretch the muscles, rehab them, exercise them, and provide soft tissue mobilization to get things moving freely again.”

While physical therapy sessions are important, it’s equally essential to follow a healthy lifestyle on a day-to-day basis. That’s why Van Loan and her team educate their patients about how to live a healthy lifestyle to support their recovery and overall health. From eating a nutrient-dense, plant-based diet to getting adequate exercise, taking a proactive, holistic approach is key.

No matter where a patient is on their breast cancer recovery journey, Van Loan encourages them to come in for an initial evaluation. “Even if patients haven’t undergone treatment yet, it’s important to start the education process about what they can do to help prevent edema, stiffness, and tightness, as well as how to live a healthy lifestyle.”

If you’re a breast cancer patient who’s interested in receiving physical therapy before, during, and/or after your treatment, schedule an initial evaluation with Sundog Rehabilitation by visiting or calling 605-787-2719.

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