Exercise and Breast Cancer: Why Some Patients Aren’t Moving
Exercise and Breast Cancer
Marian Barnick

Marian Barnick

Registered Kinesiologist and Human Movement Specialist




There’s no question about it – exercise is awesome for cancer patients.


Research proves that cancer patients who exercise get the benefits of increased energy, decreased fatigue, less symptoms during treatment, and decreased risk of recurrence.


These are amazing benefits.


But how do you get there?


It doesn’t just happen.  After chemo, radiation, surgery – cancer patients hear the message that they should exercise.






No one’s telling breast cancer survivors how to get from being a patient to being active.


Breast Cancer Research

Two studies provided breast cancer survivors with education and an exercise program and followed their progress for a year after surgery.

The studies evaluated how well survivors improved in their function their level of pain, their movement as well as diagnosis of lymphedema.

Both studies found that from 1/3 to 1/2 of the survivors needed ‘extra’ help beyond just performing exercise to recover from surgery.  They needed rehabilitation.

These women needed more than  just a few exercises and an education pamphlet.

Exercise and Breast Cancer


Breast Cancer Rehab

In the gym or at the clinic, words can get tossed around like therapy, treatment, exercise, rehab….and these can all mean the same thing…well sort of.

After surgery, you can have ‘exercises’ as part of a rehab program.  But your surgeon will also tell you that you’re NOT allowed to exercise for a period of time, for example 6 weeks, after surgery.

It can be confusing when the words are interchangeable or when they mean different things to different people.

There are times when ‘rehab’ can include exercise.  For example, if we think about a patient who’s had a total hip replacement.  She’ll have ‘exercises’ to do.  But what kind of exercises?  She’s not going to go bike riding a day after surgery.

If you can grab your keys, head to the gym, and do a Cardio-Pump fitness class, I’d call that exercise.  But if you’re not there yet, you may need really specific exercises.  I call those “really specific exercises” rehab.

So what’s important here is the type of exercise.  

But how, in the midst of treatment and recovering from surgery do you know what to do and what you need?

breast cancer exercises

Frustration Reduces Breast Cancer Exercise

Trying to navigate the road back to being active isn’t easy and many breast cancer survivors  get lost along the way.  

They’re not sure what exercises to do, what’s safe, and whether something’s going to increase pain or help with tightness.

That’s why research shows that millions of breast cancer survivors continue to suffer with arm pain, tight shoulders, and limitations with activities.

shoulder pain

For breast cancer patients,  cancer rehab programs are limited or non existent after surgery.  Handing a patient an exercise pamphlet is NOT rehab.

And right after surgery  is a CRITICAL TIME for movement therapy.

Mobility exercises as soon as you’ve been cleared by your surgeon leads to better outcomes with improved range of motion, decreased pain, and reduced risk of lymphedema.

If your breast cancer rehab is postponed you not only increase the time it will take to get your range of motion back but you increase your risk for things like: adhesions, frozen shoulder, and lymphedema.

That’s why it’s crucial to have a Cancer Movement Therapist support recovery after surgery.

Improving Function After Breast Cancer

The research studies looked at two separate things – the evaluation by the patients themselves (how they felt, pain levels, function at home etc.) and the evaluation by the therapists (range of motion, arm measurements, strength etc.).  

The results from both the patients and the therapists determined the need for more focused treatment. beyond just exercise.

Take an inventory of how you’re moving.


Are you having difficulty with tasks around the house?

Do you limit activities because of pain?

Do you have problems reaching, dressing, lifting, or carrying?

Are you cleared to exercise but fearful of doing the wrong thing?

If you want to be more active but don’t know how to get your body to cooperate, you are a perfect candidate for Breast Cancer Rehabilitation.


The research studies found that patients in need of rehab showed limitations with shoulder range of motion.



Shoulder mobility is one of the easiest things to improve but proper body mechanics is essential to get the benefits of your rehab exercises.  Proper body mechanics also limits the risk of injuries that so many breast cancer are worried about after surgery and treatment.



If you’re wondering if you could improve your shoulder range of motion and whether or not you’re moving with proper body alignment, click the link below.



The Shoulder Flexibility Test was created specifically for breast cancer patients and it’s a FREE Guide to help you improve mobility and learn exactly what exercises your body needs.



This helps you in two ways.


1) You learning exactly what ranges of motion you need to work on (and HOW to perform these movements)


2) You save so much time by eliminating all the exercises and stretches you don’t need


So if you’ve been cleared by your surgeon, I urge you to try the Shoulder Flexibility Test.


Just click the button below.

Of course if you’ve got any questions about the test, jump into the Private Facebook Group and post your questions.

Click the button below to joint the group.

Research Articles: Lai, L. et al. Implementing the Prospective Surveillance Model (PSM) of Rehabilitation for Breast Cancer Patients with 1-Year Post-Operative Follow Up, A Prospective Observational Study, Ann Surg Oncol, October, 2016. Rafn, B. et al. Prospective surveillance and targeted physiotherapy for arm morbidity after breast cancer surgery: a pilot randomized controlled trial, Clinical Rehabilitation, February, 2018.

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