Exercises After Breast Cancer Surgery

This information was developed with assistance from the Oncology Section of the American Physical Therapy Association.

Women with breast cancer often have treatment with some kind of surgery which can include:

  • Surgical breast biopsy
  • Lymph node removal
  • Breast conservation surgery (lumpectomy)
  • Mastectomy
  • Breast reconstruction

Any of these can affect how well you can move your shoulder and arm or go about your daily activities, like dressing, bathing, and combing your hair. Pain and stiffness can cause weakness and limit movement of your arm and shoulder. 

Exercises can help restore movement

No matter what type of surgery you have, it’s important to do exercises afterward to get the arm and shoulder moving again. Exercises help decrease side effects of your surgery and help you get back to your usual activities.

If you’ve had radiation therapy after surgery, exercises are even more important to help keep your arm and shoulder flexible. Radiation may affect your arm and shoulder long after treatment is finished. Because of this, it’s important to develop a regular habit of doing exercises to maintain arm and shoulder mobility after radiation treatments for breast cancer. 

It’s very important to talk with your doctor before starting any exercises so that you can decide on a program that’s right for you. Your doctor might suggest you see a physical therapist or occupational therapist, or a cancer exercise specialist certified by the American College of Sports Medicine. These health professionals are specially trained to design an exercise program just for you. You might need this kind of help if you do not have full use of your arm within 3 to 4 weeks of surgery.

Some exercises should not be done until drains and sutures (stitches) are removed. But some exercises can be done soon after surgery. The exercises that increase your shoulder and arm motion can usually be started in a few days. Exercises to help make your arm stronger are added later. 

Here are some of the more common exercises that women do after breast surgery. Talk to your doctor or therapist about which of these are right for you and when you should start doing them. Do not start any of these exercises without talking to your doctor first.

The tips and exercises listed below should be done for the first 3 to 7 days after surgery. Do not do them until you get the OK from your doctor.

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