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Awareness: Exercise For The Breast Cancer Patient: Part Two

khts_healthBy Karena Thek Lineback

Author of OsteoPilates
Host of Pilates for Healthy Bodies on PBS
President of Pilates Teck

‘Pilates is not about obtaining the Hollywood Body. It is about feeling the best you can every single day.” -Mary Petersen, Breast cancer survivor

In our first article, we enumerated the benefits of exercise for the cancer patient; those benefits included everything from increasing range of motion, increasing stamina, improving posture, reducing depression and lowering the risk of fracture if you have developed osteoporosis as a result of your treatment. Last week’s in-depth focus was on improving shoulder mobility after surgery and this week we’ll focus on lymphedema.

Lymphedema is a painful swelling that, for breast cancer patients, is generally the result of lymph tissues that were removed in the underarm area during breast surgery or affected during radiation therapy. The lymph nodes are vessels that drain fluid from tissues throughout the body and allow immune cells to travel where they are needed.

So if a good portion of that tissue is gone where does the fluid go? How do the immune cells get where they need to go? Very simply the fluid and the cells don’t go anywhere; things just get backed up. The fluid settles in the armpit area causing pain and the immune cells are not able to travel where they are needed – inhibiting healing.

Generally, the treatment for lymphedema is compression (many layers of bandages wrapped in a specific pattern), manual lymph drainage, and range of motion exercise.

Range of motion exercise, as well as deep breathing, provide an internal pump that helps to push the fluid through the stagnant area of inhibited lymph function. Think of a sponge that is filled with water. Imagine, not squeezing the sponge, but folding the sponge back and forth and back and forth. Fluid will get released and more fluid will be released with more repetitions. The same is true with swelling due to lymphedema.

Doing something gentle enough that a high number of repetitions will be possible is important. Just lay on your back. and with straight arms touch your palms together over your chest and then bend your elbows to touch the floor beside you. That would be gentle enough to do high repetitions. If it is within your ability, you may also try the exercise attached.

You may not feel like getting up and getting started on an exercise program while undergoing treatment but this is where a gentle program like Pilates can be extremely helpful. Pilates is gentle enough to meet you where you are physically and effective enough to make improvements without strain. The best way to start a Pilates program while undergoing treatment would be to contact a Pilates studio that is affiliated with a physical therapy clinic that can guide your rehabilitation and accept your insurance.



Simple Presses: This exercise mimics the much harder push-up that we are all familiar with. The exercise strengthens the chest muscles while gentle moving the shoulder and elbow joint in a short range of motion from flexion to extension.

To perform Simple Presses: Sit as shown in the picture with both hands at your side. As shown in the picture, one hand is in front of your knee and one hand is behind; but begin with the arms straight, not bent. Keeping your shoulders pressed down and away from your ears, now bend the elbows. Keep the elbows tucked into your sides as opposed to sticking out like chicken wings. Also, keep the range of motion comfortable. Do not go too deep with the elbow bend if you are just trying this exercise for the first time. Oh, and keep your stomach pulled away from your thigh. No sagging tummies! Now you can return to your start position.

Breathing: Inhale, to begin (no movement). Exhale; bend the elbows. Inhale; pause with the elbows bent. Exhale; return to your start position.

This article is part two in a series this month for Breast Cancer Awareness. Each article will include a new exercise for the breast cancer patient and survivor. Next week: flexibility exercise for increasing shoulder range of motion.

Be sure to talk to your doctor before performing any exercise program to determine if this program will be safe and appropriate for you.

To perform the entire workout, see our DVD at

Awareness: Exercise For The Breast Cancer Patient: Part Two

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