Mastectomy Recovery Helped by Massage and Range of Motion Exercise

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Breast cancer is the most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide for women, even while those rates have declined in recent years. Treatment options include lumpectomy, radiation, chemotherapy, and single or double mastectomy. While long-term survival rates are similar for these various procedures, many women opt for the more extreme mastectomy surgeries for the peace of mind they offer.

Mastectomy can be either a treatment for existing cancer, or a preventive measure against potential future breast cancer. Whether as a treatment or a prophylactic, though, and whether single or double, mastectomy is considered a major surgery. It involves the removal of the entire breast and sometimes the associated lymph nodes. Recovery takes time.

Post-Mastectomy Complications Can Be Difficult

In the aftermath of mastectomy surgery, patients have reported symptoms ranging from fatigue and pain to sleep disturbances, arm weakness, swelling, and limited range of motion of the arms. Quality of life in the first month of recovery is the worst, but complications can be ongoing if not addressed.

After surgery, the body immediately begins to repair itself, attempting to heal the damage that has been done. A lot of this “repair” involves the creation of scar tissue over affected areas. The scar tissue attracts more scar tissue, and “axillary cording” can form (tight bands of connective tissue running through the armpit and down the arm).

It is this hardened scar tissue that causes many of the problems—the pain and tightness and the limited range of motion, especially.

Post-Mastectomy Massage and Physical Therapy

The good news is that with proper attention, these issues can be resolved. Begun early enough, they may never develop at all. Post-mastectomy therapy involving massage and range of motion exercises can be a powerful weapon against the overabundance of scar tissue.

A program of gentle massage can be started as soon as the incisions from surgery have closed. Then with regular massage as scar tissue continues to form, the tissues are kept pliable and the scar tissue forms in a more organized, less constrictive manner. Instead of setting like concrete over the chest, the scar tissue forms more loosely, allowing for wider and less painful range of motion.

Likewise, range of motion exercises during the recovery process are equally important. After surgery, many women report an inability to raise their arms above their heads. Simple movements like brushing their hair or removing something from a shelf become impossible. Once again, this is likely due to the formation of scar tissue during the weeks following surgery, while the arms and shoulders remained in a largely immobile position.

While massage is very helpful at combatting this, thirty minutes per day of shoulder-arm exercise has also been shown to lead to a significant improvement. Range of motion exercises are an essential component of recovery.

One study suggested that 90% of breast cancer patients could benefit from physical therapy—that includes both massage and exercises directed by a physical therapist—but that only 30% ever receive it. So if your doctors doesn’t mention this as part of your recovery plan, don’t hesitate to ask about it.