In this blog post we are going to explore a holistic approach to self-care after active breast cancer treatment finishes.
For so many women, the end of active treatment is, understandably, such a huge relief, but then the shock of suddenly being alone when it comes to rehabilitating their changed or changing body is very real.
I worked for many years as a physiotherapist in the UK, time and time again I witnessed that people at this stage in their cancer journey were not receiving the expert support they needed. Sadly, services were only available to people once they were really struggling. I believe you deserve MORE expert support and guidance around exercise and wellness when active treatment ends not less.
So, where to start? First of all, it’s about acknowledging where you are at now, really taking the time to go slowly and listen to how you are feeling physically and emotionally in this moment. How about stopping right now, as you sit and read this, taking some deep breaths and asking yourself these questions;
From here you can start to work out what your needs are, and these needs may change on a day-to-day basis. What I am trying to say is that each day may be different and rehabilitation may not always be a linear process. It’s important to take time to check in with yourself each day to find out what you need.
Questions that I use to prompt this enquiry before exercise are;
The answers to these questions will offer guidance on what is the right intensity/ duration for your exercise/ relaxation each day. It will also help you decide what you need for your emotional wellbeing.
A Strong Foundation
From a physical perspective the beginning of rehabilitation always starts with posture and alignment, how you are holding your body and how you are using it in everyday activities and when exercising.
Breast cancer surgery and treatments can understandably cause you to feel less able to be as active as usual. Feeling unwell and fatigued can mean you have spent more time resting in bed or on an easy chair, this can encourage a slumped posture. Generally being less active means that postural muscles can weaken. It is also very natural that after breast surgery you may have unconsciously tried to guard a painful scar and have found yourself rounding your shoulders forward for example. All of these changes to postures can cause our bodies to fall out of correct biomechanical alignment. This means that our muscular systems and all of our organs and unconscious bodily functions cannot work properly and are under a lot of strain, all of the time. This can impede the body’s ability to heal.
So first off, taking a look at your posture is key.
What goes hand-in-hand with healthy posture is a strong and stable core. Core muscles are also quick to decondition during periods of being less active and when posture changes.
Did you know every move you make originates in your core? From picking up a feather to a heavy breeze block your core should engage a split second before you start moving to keep your body in correct alignment and reduce the risk of injury.
Restoring Range of Movement
Then look at your range of movement at your shoulders, chest and neck. After breast cancer surgery and/or radiotherapy movement at the shoulder girdle can be affected. Starting to gently stretch and mobilise these joints and scar tissue is important, but doing it all within a pain and strain free range is crucial. Listening to the body and taking exercises to a point of gentle stretch is ok but moving in to pain or strain can cause injury or lymphoedema (if you have lymph nodes removed or radiated).
When to add in Strengthening Exercises
When thinking about strengthening exercises it is first essential to get at least 90% of your full range of movement back first otherwise you will be making an already short (tight) muscle shorter. Start with joint mobility in the first instance, there is no rush to get in to strengthening work. If you are at risk of lymphoedema then returning to resistance exercise needs to be very gentle and progressed slowly.
What about Lymphoedema?
If you have had lymph nodes removed or radiated then learning and beginning lymph drainage exercises can be very supportive for your lymph system, reducing the risk of lymphoedema or preventing existing lymphoedema from worsening.
Keeping Heart and Lungs Healthy and Happy
When it comes to breast cancer rehab walking is a fabulous form of exercise. It works the heart and lungs and is great at burning excess calories and whole-body toning. It’s a weight-bearing exercise so helps to maintain and improve bone density, so important fro those of you on hormonal treatments or at risk of Osteoporosis.
A cancer diagnosis, and then subsequent cancer treatment IS traumatic, taking time to stop and take stock of what you have been through is very important. Physically your body has undergone some, most-likely, highly invasive and aggressive treatments, you may be left with scars and residual unpleasant side-effects. Your body will not have been able to differentiate this life-saving treatment from being injured.
Emotionally, the shock of a cancer diagnosis and then the potential anxiety and subsequent grief of undergoing body-altering surgery, along with so many other harsh treatments and challenges is a LOT to deal with.
We have been culturally conditioned to believe that we have to push our bodies hard to achieve results when it comes to exercise. We also feel a pressure to return to ‘normal’ life as soon as possible despite our bodies and minds being in this fragile state.
Taking the time to nurse your wounds, so to speak, and to reach out for ongoing support and care is important. How would you treat a loved one who had just been through what you have been through? I am guessing that you would say with tender loving care. Can you offer this level of compassion to yourself?
Taking time to practice relaxation techniques such as yogic breathing techniques, mindfulness, taking a nap, cuddling your pet etc all help to calm a most-likely rattled nervous, getting through cancer treatment can be a lot about survival, meaning your body was probably in a constant state of fight or flight. Calming your nervous system is very important as we know a stressed body struggles to heal.
That’s a lot to digest, but I do hope it helps you to make sense of where to start and the direction to take with your rehab. Take your time to think about what your rehabilitation programme could look like and the support you may need to achieve that. Returning to regular exercise is so worthwhile, it can reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence by up to 55%!!
The Gentle Recovery concept is a holistic approach to rehabilitation so we use a blend of yoga-based exercise, walking programmes, relaxation sessions and lots of education to help you manage side-effects of treatment such a fatigue, sleep issues, stress, nutrition etc..
What we also know to be very important when it comes to recovery is being within a community of like-minded people to be able to discuss how you are doing, ask questions and to be each other’s cheer leaders. That’s why on our Gentle Recovery for Breast cancer course you will be invited to the community tree, an online hub for all the members on the programme (this is of course optional), I will be there too to answer any questions you may have.
If you would like to join the 12 week Breast Cancer Rehab programme then do follow this link to the programme https://gentlerecovery.co.uk/my-programme/join-now/
I look forward to seeing you there!!
Or, if you have any questions please do reach out; firstname.lastname@example.org