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STORY: Amelia Pavlik

Terri Robertson Elder

Almost 7,500: According to the American Cancer Society, that’s the estimated number of breast cancer cases that will be diagnosed in Georgia in 2018.

A fair number of these women will face breast cancer-related surgery, and the aches and emotional exhaustion that follow. These challenges can make exercising again difficult, but there are plenty of reasons to make it a priority.

“Breast surgeries can cause stiffness and pain in the arm and chest that limit activities as simple as bathing and dressing,” says Terri Robertson Elder, a physical therapist and certified lymphedema therapist with Northside Hospital. “Exercise can restore motion, increase strength, improve fatigue and mental health, and decrease pain. But make sure you’re cleared by your physician prior to beginning any exercise program.”

In honor of October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we’ve gathered some tips to help women who’ve undergone this type of surgery—from mastectomy to lumpectomy—get back into the workout groove.

How long should I wait to return?

“The average recuperation for a lumpectomy can be anywhere from two days to two weeks and four to six weeks for a mastectomy,” says Dr. Erin Bowman of Atlanta Breast Care, a Buckhead-based practice specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the breast.

Dr. Erin Bowman

How should I go about integrating exercise back into my life?

Go slowly, advises Bowman. “Walk short distances, and adjust for the shape you were in prior to your surgery,” she says. “For example, if you’ve never done much walking, keep it short and frequent, maybe down the hall and back. As you’re able to progress your walking, you can increase your time and frequency.” When it comes to strength training, Bowman recommends starting with small weights (think 1 pound). (Weight restrictions after surgery are especially common for women who’ve had reconstruction, as the wound needs time to seal and heal.) “Strength follows range,” says Bowman. “So only start true strengthening after you’ve gotten most of your mobility back.”

What is a strengthening exercise I can do?

Elder suggests the wand exercise to ease back into adding resistance to your routine. Use a broom handle or other stick-like object. Begin by lying down and holding the wand in both hands. Raise the wand up overhead until a gentle stretch is felt. Hold five seconds and return to start. Perform 8 to 10 times once or twice a day. Then try it standing up.

Are there any stretches you recommend?

You can stretch your shoulders with the wall stretch, says Elder. Stand facing the wall with your toes about 6 to 8 inches from the wall. Walk your arm up the wall using your fingers until you feel a gentle stretch. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds as you breathe, and try to relax your shoulder muscles. Perform on both sides twice a day. To stretch the front of the chest, she recommends lying face-up with a pillow under your back, lengthwise, with the head supported. The arms can rest out to the side. As the stretch gets easier, the arms can gradually stretch higher up, closer to the head. Breathe and hold for 30 seconds to a minute, and repeat twice a day.

Is there anything I can do to manage pain during and after exercise?

Some pain is normal following surgery, and soreness may even increase in the weeks following surgery as the impacted nerves start to heal, says Elder. You may feel burning, tingling or numbness. “Gentle rubbing with a soft cloth may reduce sensitivity, and deep breathing exercises help restore rib and chest movements and can have a pain-relieving effect,” she adds. “Discontinue any exercise that causes sharp pain.”

Atlanta Breast Care
275 Collier Road N.W.
Atlanta 30309

Northside Hospital Outpatient Rehabilitation
993-D Johnson Ferry Road
Atlanta 30342

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