A mastectomy is the surgical removal of one or both breasts as a treatment for breast cancer.
It can be a life-changing experience, but it doesn't mean that you have to stop living an active, healthy lifestyle. In fact, exercise can be an essential part of the healing process, both physically and emotionally, and it is often encouraged during recovery.
However, it's essential to consult with your healthcare team before starting any exercise program to ensure that it is safe and appropriate for your specific situation. They will provide guidance on when to begin exercising and which types of exercises are suitable for you.
Generally, you can start with gentle stretching and light aerobic activities like walking. As you recover, you can gradually progress to strength training, more intense aerobic exercises, and mind-body practices like Pilates and yoga.
Why Should I Exercise After A Mastectomy?
After the procedure, exercise can provide numerous physical and emotional benefits, such as improving range of motion, strength, and flexibility in the affected area, enhancing overall mental health, and reducing the risk of lymphedema.
There is also the potential that positive effects of exercise on hormone levels, weight management, the immune system, reduction of inflammation, and mental health, all contribute to lowering the risk of breast cancer recurrence.
When Can I Start Exercising?
The timeline for resuming exercise after a mastectomy varies for each individual and depends on factors such as the extent of the surgery, your overall health, and any additional treatments you may be undergoing.
In general, you may be able to start gentle stretching exercises and light aerobic activities (like walking) within a few days to a week after surgery, as long as they don't cause pain or discomfort.
These initial exercises can help promote blood circulation, prevent stiffness, and aid in the healing process.
For more intense exercises or strength training, you may need to wait a few weeks or even months after surgery, depending on your recovery progress and your healthcare team's recommendations. It's crucial to be patient and allow your body sufficient time to heal before gradually increasing the intensity and duration of your workouts.
What Exercises Are Recommended After A Mastectomy?
After a mastectomy, it's important to consult with your healthcare team before starting any exercise program, as they will provide personalised recommendations based on your specific situation.
It is important that you wait until your healthcare team gives you the green light to perform chest exercises, as starting too soon can lead to complications or delayed healing. When you are cleared to perform these activities, it is a good idea to start with a modified version, such as wall push-ups or push-ups on your knees, to reduce the strain on your chest muscles and gradually build strength.
Generally, the following types of exercises are recommended after a mastectomy:
- Stretching: Gentle stretching exercises can help improve flexibility and range of motion in the chest, shoulders, and arms. Start with simple exercises like shoulder rolls, neck stretches, and arm circles, as long as they don't cause pain or discomfort. These can typically be done soon after surgery.
- Strength training: As you recover and gain clearance from your healthcare team, gradually introduce light resistance exercises to build up strength in the affected area and prevent muscle imbalances. Examples of such exercises include wall push-ups, shoulder presses, and bicep curls.
- Aerobic exercise: Engaging in cardiovascular exercises like walking, swimming, cycling, and dancing can improve overall fitness, boost mood, and reduce fatigue. Start slow and gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts as you recover.
- Pilates and yoga: These mind-body practices can enhance flexibility, balance, and core strength while providing relaxation and stress relief. Look for classes specifically designed for breast cancer survivors, as these will be more tailored to your needs.
Always listen to your body and avoid overexerting yourself, especially during the early stages of recovery. If you experience pain, discomfort, or unusual swelling during or after exercise, stop and consult with your healthcare team.
Can Exercise Be Harmful After A Mastectomy?
While exercising after a mastectomy can provide numerous benefits for recovery and overall well-being, there are some concerns and potential risks.
Engaging in strenuous exercises too soon after surgery can lead to complications, such as delayed healing, increased pain, and prolonged recovery time. Vigorous exercise before the surgical incisions have fully healed may also increase the risk of infection.
Some additional challenges for attempting exercise after a mastectomy include pain and discomfort around the surgical site, reduced range of motion due to scar tissue and muscle tightness, and muscular imbalances due to weakness or tightness in the affected area.
Does Exercise Help Or Hinder Lymphedema?
Undergoing breast surgery brings a risk of developing lymphedema, which is swelling caused by disruption to the lymphatic system.
This could occur within days of the surgery, or it could be slower, taking months or years to develop. Exercise after a mastectomy can both help prevent lymphedema and potentially increase the risk of developing it, depending on the type, intensity, and progression of the exercise.
On one hand, exercise can help prevent lymphedema by promoting circulation, which helps remove excess fluid. It also strengthens the muscles in the affected area which can support the flow of lymphatic fluid, and reduces excess weight which is a risk factor for developing lymphedema.
On the other hand, engaging in overly strenuous or high-intensity exercises too soon after surgery or without proper progression may increase your risk of developing the condition.
Overexertion can strain the lymphatic system and exacerbate fluid buildup in the affected area, so be sure to start slowly with any exercise plan and monitor for signs such as swelling, heaviness, or tightness in the affected arm. If you notice any of these symptoms, stop exercising and consult your healthcare team.
Why Is It Important To Exercise After Mastectomy?
Incorporating exercise into your recovery plan after a mastectomy can offer numerous physical and emotional benefits, helping you regain strength, improve flexibility, and enhance your overall well-being. However, it is important to listen to your body and avoid overexerting yourself, especially during the early stages of recovery.
Always consult with a healthcare team before starting any exercise program and follow their recommendations on when to begin exercising and which types of exercises are appropriate for you. Remember to also be patient with yourself and allow time for your body to heal and regain strength, while also celebrating your progress along the way.