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Exercises after surgery

Exercise is an important part of your recovery after surgery for breast cancer. It can help you:

Important reminder

  • Reduce after surgery limitations in shoulder range of motion.
  • Regain and maintain normal movement in your arms and shoulders.
  • Reduce pain in your chest wall, shoulders, neck and back.
  • Return to your daily activities faster such as dressing, bathing and driving.
  • Keep your muscles strong.
  • Improve overall well being.

Instructions:

  • Begin exercises the day after your surgery.
  • Plan to take your pain medication 20 to 30 minutes before doing your exercises.
  • Breathe deeply and often as you do each exercise.
  • Do the exercises 3 times a day, every day, until you have regained full range of motion in your arm(s).
  • Try to do the exercises daily so you do not forget. For example, you could do the exercises after breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Stage 1: Exercises to do while you still have your drain(s) in place

1. Pump It Up

This exercise helps reduce swelling after surgery by using your muscles as a pump to improve the circulation in your affected arm (on the same side as your surgery).

Exercise demonstration

  1. Lie on your unaffected side with your affected arm straight out, resting on top of a pillow.
  2. Slowly bend your elbow while making a fist at the same time.
  3. Next, slowly straighten your elbow while opening your fist at the same time.
  4. Repeat this pumping motion 15 to 25 times.

If you had surgery on both sides of your chest, repeat the exercise lying on the opposite side of your body.

2. Shoulder Circles

This exercise can be done sitting or standing. It’s a good warm-up exercise and can help relieve tension in your shoulders.

Shoulder circles

  1. Lift both shoulders up toward your ears. Keep your chin tucked in slightly.
  2. Gently rotate both shoulders forward, and then slowly down and back, making a circle.
  3. Make 5 slow circles in one direction, then switch and make 5 slow circles in the opposite direction.

3. Arm Lifts

This exercise can be done sitting or standing. It helps improve movement in your shoulders.

Arm lifts

  1. Clasp your hands together in front of your chest. Point your elbows out.
  2. Slowly lift your arms upwards until you feel a gentle stretch, but no pain.
  3. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds and then slowly return to the start position.
  4. Repeat 5 to 10 times.

4. Shoulder Blade Squeeze

This exercise can be done sitting (without resting your back on the chair) or standing. It helps to stretch your chest muscles.

Shoulder blade squeeze

  1. Hold your arms at your side against your body with your elbows bent.
  2. Slowly bring your elbows straight backwards, while squeezing your shoulder blades together to feel a gentle stretch.
  3. Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds and then slowly return to the start position.
  4. Remember to keep breathing throughout the stretch.
  5. Repeat 5 to 10 times.

Stage 2: Exercises to do after your drain(s) have been removed

You no longer need to do the previous exercises.

1. Wand Exercise

You will need a “wand” to do this exercise – try a broom handle, stick or cane.

Wand exercise

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent. Hold the wand with both hands. Your hands should be as wide apart as your shoulders.
  2. Lift the wand over your head as far as you can until you feel a stretch. Your unaffected arm will help lift the wand higher.
  3. Hold for 5 seconds, then gently lower arms.
  4. Repeat 5 to 10 times.

To progress, repeat exercise with hands slightly wider than your hips or shoulders.

2. Winging It

This exercise helps stretch the front of your chest and shoulder.

Winging it

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent. Touch your fingertips to your ears with your elbows pointed to the ceiling.
  2. Move your elbows apart until you feel a gentle stretch, but no pain.
  3. Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds and then slowly return to the start position.
  4. Remember to keep breathing throughout the stretch.
  5. Repeat 5 to 10 times.

3. Snow Angel

This exercise helps to stretch the tight tissue in the armpit area and increases movement in your shoulders.

Snow angel

  1. Lie on your back and extend your arms out at your sides.
  2. Move your arms up over your head, leading with your thumbs, eventually touching your fingers at the top.
  3. Next, move your arms back down to your sides (as if you’re making an angel in the snow).
  4. Repeat 5 to 10 times.

4. Wall Climbing

This exercise helps increase movement in your shoulder. Try to reach a little higher on the wall each day. This exercise is done in 2 positions – A) facing the wall and B) with your affected side to the wall.

Wall climbing

a. Facing the wall

  1. Stand facing the wall.
  2. Place the palm of your hand (of your affected arm) flat against the wall.
  3. Slowly slide your hand up the wall as high as you can go until you feel a stretch, but no pain.
  4. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds
  5. Return to the start position.
  6. Repeat 5 to 10 times.

If you had surgery on both sides of your chest, repeat this exercise with your other arm.

Side wall stretch

b. Side wall stretch

  1. Stand with your affected side to the wall.
  2. Place the palm of your hand flat against the wall.
  3. Slowly slide your hand up the wall as high as you can go until you feel a stretch. Do not rotate your body toward the wall. Keep your body facing forward even if it means you can’t go up as high.
  4. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds.
  5. Return to the start position.
  6. Repeat 5 to 10 times.

5. Side Bends

This exercise is more advanced and can be performed once a day when you feel ready.

Side bends

  1. Sit in a chair and clasp your hands together in your lap.
  2. Slowly lift your arms over your head.
  3. Bend at your waist to move your body to the right. Use your right hand to gently pull your left arm a little farther to the right. Keep yourself firmly planted on the chair.
  4. Hold this position for 5 seconds and then slowly return to the start position.
  5. Repeat this stretch to the left side, using your left hand to pull your right arm farther.
  6. Repeat 5 to 10 times on each side.

Remember, it may take 6 to 8 weeks to regain full movement of your arm(s). If you continue to have difficulties regaining full movement in your arm(s) and shoulder(s) after this time, please ask your surgeon for a referral to physiotherapy and occupational therapy for follow-up.

Other activities:

It is safe to do light housework during the first 6 weeks after surgery. Do only short periods at a time and rest in between. You can start heavier activities after 6 weeks. Always let pain be your guide – a little discomfort is okay but more pain could mean you are doing too much.

* The exercises in this guide have been adapted from the booklet Exercises after Breast Surgery, Canadian Cancer Society, 2015.

 

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