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Breast Cancer Survivorship

A diagnosis of breast cancer means many different things to many different people. Regardless, receiving this diagnosis means some sort of treatment will likely follow. The types of treatment and outcomes are largely dependent on individual patient scenarios, however, one thing is for certain: A patient’s life will be forever changed after having received this diagnosis.
Historically, comprehensive care for a patient with breast cancer has focused on treatment and prevention. However, more and more women are surviving breast cancer every year. Therefore, more attention needs to be paid to survivorship. Once someone has survived cancer, comprehensive, quality care should obviously focus on preventing recurrence, however, it may also include guidance and counseling on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and addressing physical and psychosocial changes.

A very recent 2016 article published in the Annals of Surgical Oncology discusses the subject of survivorship in breast cancer patients. This article suggests that the key to achieving successful outcomes for management of a breast cancer survivor is a multidisciplinary approach to help these survivors deal with the physical and psychosocial sequela resulting from their diagnosis.

As a pelvic rehabilitation provider, this is a very thought-provoking article as it outlines several areas in which I feel breast cancer survivors could benefit from physical therapy. A pelvic rehabilitation provider can be a valuable part of the multidisciplinary team that helps manage a breast cancer survivor towards positive and meaningful outcomes, ultimately enhancing their quality of life. The following are some areas addressed in the article in which a breast cancer survivor may need assistance to improve and support a meaningful quality of life.

Sexuality: According to this article, studies show treatment for breast cancer is associated with significant decrease in sexual interest, desire, arousal, and difficulty achieving orgasm and/or lack of sexual pleasure. Additionally, patients can also report pain with intercourse (dyspareunia) and/or vaginal dryness, which can lead to sexual dysfunction. Physical therapy can help by providing education on normal sexual response and lubricants, as well as help with tissue healing. Therapeutic techniques include exercise and manual treatments to areas that may be damaged from surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Additionally, exercise has been shown to improve self-image. Poor body image has been linked to sexual dysfunction following breast surgery (depending on the type “breast sparing techniques” versus mastectomy). This includes only some of the ways a physical therapist can help improve sexual dysfunction.

Lymphedema: According to the article, 30-70% of breast cancer patients experience lymphedema after treatment. Physical therapy can play an important role in the control and/or reduction of lymphedema. A physical therapist can provide helpful education, exercise, weight control, and, if needed, manual techniques and compression garments and bandaging.

Teachable moments after cancer diagnosis: A teachable moment is when you identify and seize an opportunity to educate your patient. After a life altering event or illness, people are more accepting of advice and change of lifestyle. As healthcare providers, we can utilize this time to help our patients improve outcomes by modifying their behavior. The cited article states there is clear evidence that physical activity decreases incidence and recurrence.There is additional evidence to show controlling weight and maintaining a normal body mass index (BMI) improves breast cancer survivor outcomes. A physical therapist can help a breast cancer survivor to develop a guided and progressive home exercise program to help them maintain normal BMI and participate in regular physical activity safely and regularly.

The discussed article, “Breast Cancer Survivorship: Why, What and When?”, sheds light on many areas of physical and psychosocial challenges that patients surviving breast cancer may deal with. This article also advocates that a multidisciplinary approach yields the greatest outcomes. I suggest that physical therapy can be a valuable part of the team when creating patient care plans for breast cancer survivors.

To learn more about breast cancer and outcomes based treatments, consider attending "Physical Therapy Treatment for the Breast Oncology Patient! The next course is taking place in Stockton, CA this September 24-25.


Gass, J., Dupree, B., Pruthi, S., Radford, D., Wapnir, I., Antoszewska, R., ... & Johnson, N. (2016). Breast Cancer Survivorship: Why, What and When?. Annals of Surgical Oncology, 1-6.

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Sensing the Body from the Inside Out

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