5 Strengthening Exercises To Try Post Breast Surgery

Women recovering from breast cancer treatment typically have a lot of questions regarding when and how they should start exercising.  Eager to return to normal day-to-day life, regular exercise is a natural and recommended path to rebuilding strength and endurance, reducing pain and fatigue, and regaining range of motion and function. Importantly, for many women, it can also serve as a mental and physical switch that changes their experience of cancer recovery from passive participant to active ownership.  A very positive step indeed!

Post-surgical exercises are usually provided by hospital staff to guide women in the early days, including gentle stretching of the arm, shoulder blade squeezes, and so on.  Getting out for a walk on as many days of the week as possible is also a valuable activity during that first phase of healing. But when it comes to more progressive types of exercise and strengthening, patients often describe feeling at a loss in terms of where to begin – and fair enough! 

Women may be hesitant to start lifting weights without proper instruction or they may worry about doing too much too soon, risking injury or compromising their tissue healing. Increasing the risk of developing lymphedema is another common concern. The chronic accumulation of lymphatic fluid and resulting swelling known as lymphedema can arise as a result of breast cancer treatment, most notably due to lymph node removal or radiation. But rest assured, exercise including resistance training has not been shown to increase the risk of developing lymphedema, to the contrary, exercise is now recognized as a valuable tool for both prevention and management of this potential side effect. 

When to start strength training?

We recommend waiting to start strength training until after post-surgical restrictions have been lifted and your surgical wounds have sufficiently healed. Typically, if women are not experiencing any complications from their treatment that affects the chest/surgical site/radiation field, it is appropriate to start strengthening using light resistance at approximately the six to eight-week mark post-op.  If you’re unsure if you’re ready to begin a gentle strengthening program, you should speak to a member of your health care team, be it your family physician, surgeon, plastic surgeon, radiation oncologist, medical oncologist (depending on what stage of treatment you may be in), or one of their staff.  An experienced physiotherapist, in particular one experienced in cancer rehabilitation, can also help guide you so that you have confidence in initiating this phase of your recovery. 

Once you are ready to go – we’re happy to help you get going! In the below video I demonstrate my top five strengthening exercises for women ready to initiate a regular exercise program following breast cancer treatment. They are easy to do at a gym or in the comfort of your home, and all you need is a pair of light hand weights (2 to 3 lbs each), a mat or carpeted area for your comfort, and a chair or bench nearby.  

This particular set of exercises addresses goals pertinent to breast cancer patients during their early recovery phase, specifically, improved upper body strength, improved posture and core stabilization. These exercises involve the use of both upper body and lower body muscle groups. In the video, we also demonstrate exercise progressions to give you direction for when you are ready to increase the level of challenge.

Lindsay Davey is a Registered Physiotherapist who specializes in Cancer Rehabilitation and Lymphedema Treatment. Lindsay is the Owner and Clinical Director of Toronto Physiotherapy and is a well-known speaker and educator on the topics of lymphedema and cancer recovery.

Posted in: Emotional/Mental Health, Exercise, Post Treatment, Survivorship