Considered the most distressing complication of breast cancer surgery is swelling of the lymph nodes between the breast and underarm, called Lymphedema. This common condition causes significant limitation in the affected arm’s range of motion and can last months or longer. Simple tasks like dressing oneself become monumental and overwhelming, limiting a woman’s ability to do things for herself.

A recent study found that a customized physical therapy exercise program that focuses on lymphedema prevention caused a faster return of range of motion after axillary node dissection. In this procedure, lymph nodes, many near or under the arm, have been removed.

But it doesn’t end there. Other complications can arise from having breast cancer surgery, and patients often don’t know what questions to ask of their surgical team.

If you have shoulder surgery, your doctor is going to recommend physical therapy as part of your rehabilitation. The same should be true after breast cancer surgery. However, this isn’t happening in many medical offices across the country.  By patients not taking appropriate measures early, the problem can compound and create a decreased likelihood of a full range of motion returning.

Redmond, Oregon resident, Nancy, did her homework before having a mastectomy of her left breast. After having a lumpectomy and radiation on her right breast years before, she wanted her healing process to go as smoothly as possible. She reached out to Step & Spine Physical Therapy’s Redmond location and connected with Jolene Kjorstad, PT, DPT.

“I ask a lot of questions of my healthcare providers,” said Nancy. “You should never assume the doctor is going to tell you everything you need to know. You have to advocate for your health. “My doctor recommended I begin physical therapy a month after surgery,” she added.

Initially, after surgery, Nancy wasn’t able to do many of the things she enjoyed, such as  painting and swimming, because of decreased range of motion caused by scarring. Through a team approach that consisted of education, massage, and physical therapy, Jolene and Carolyn Wise, LMT, were able to help Nancy fully recover and prevent lymphedema.

“Carolyn taught Nancy home techniques for lymph drainage using gentle massage applied in a specific order,” said Kjorstad. “Once her scar healed, I began using cupping to improve scar mobility,” she added.

Scar tissue after a mastectomy often creates a significant decrease in mobility.

“Specific exercises, stretches and other therapies can improve a patient’s range of motion while building strength,” said Barrett Ford, PT, and owner of Step & Spine Physical Therapy.

Cynthia Hill has a similar story to Nancy’s. She asked a lot of questions before having breast cancer surgery and therefore was provided a rehabilitation program that helped her heal faster without complications.

“I do my exercises and massage regularly, which prevents lymphedema and other issues from happening,” said Mrs. Hill. “I can feel tingling in my arm, which tells me I need to start doing my massage and exercises,” she added.

Advocate for Your Health

Help those around you become better advocates for their health. Share this information with those who have or will be undergoing breast cancer surgery so they can become more informed patients. Breast cancer surgery should be a positive step towards a lifetime of better health. Physical therapy can help pave the way towards this transition.

For more information about Step & Spine Physical Therapy or physical therapy after breast cancer surgery, visit us online at or call one of our three Central Oregon locations.