4 Stretches To Soothe Pain Caused By Breast Cancer Treatment, From A PT

Physical Therapist By Leslie J. Waltke, P.T., DPT
Physical Therapist
Leslie J. Waltke, P.T., DPT is a physical therapist with a clinical mastery in cancer rehabilitation.
Overhead Stretch

As cancer survivors stop treatment and transition into a life of recovery, they desperately want to return to normalcy. However, the early post-cancer-treatment road may be filled with anxiety about the cancer returning, financial strain, body image issues, stressors integrating back into work, and other lingering side effects.

One of these common lingering side effects is pain. In an American Society of Clinical Oncology study, researchers found up to 40% of cancer survivors continue to experience pain well after treatment. For breast cancer survivors, in particular, this pain usually manifests in the breast, chest, shoulder, or underarm regions.

How cancer treatments can create lasting pain.

Surgery and radiation can affect the length and elasticity of the skin, connective tissue, and muscles in the chest. If these tissues don't move well due to scar tissue or loss of elasticity, it may cause discomfort and limit the mobility and range of motion around the rib cage and shoulders.

A great way to combat tightness and stiffness from radiation and/or surgery is through stretching. The sooner you start stretching after surgery and radiation, the better, but it's never too late to start. Either way, it's important to keep in mind the relief won't be instantaneous. The tissue shortening can continue over time, meaning it may take one to two years of stretching before it finally feels comfortable again.

How long to hold each stretch when you do start depends on individual comfort levels, as well as the timing of your most recent surgery. Here's a breakdown:

  • Weeks after surgery: Hold each stretch for 5 seconds.
  • Months after surgery: Hold each stretch for 15 seconds.
  • Years after surgery: Hold each stretch for 30 seconds.

As for the best stretches to try? These four exercises are a good place to start.

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4 stretches to relieve stiffness and pain.

Overhead stretch

Image by Amanda Quadrini / Contributor

1. Overhead stretch

How to: Lie on your back with both hands reaching toward the sky. Keep elbows straight. Slowly lower both arms over your head until they nearly touch the floor. Complete 3 to 10 repetitions.

Butterfly stretch

Image by Amanda Quadrini / Contributor

2. Butterfly stretch

How to: Lie on your back with your hands behind your head and your elbows pointed toward the sky. Slowly lower elbows down and out to the side until they nearly touch the floor. Complete 3 to 10 repetitions.

Snow Angel

Image by Amanda Quadrini / Contributor

3. Snow angel

How to: Lie on your back; extend your arms down by your sides. Keep your elbows straight and palms facing upward. Slowly begin to stretch your arms out to the side, while keeping them connected to the floor. Continue until your arms are stretched entirely overhead. Complete 3 to 10 repetitions.

4 Stretches To Soothe Pain & Stiffness From Breast Cancer Treatment

Trunk Rotation

Image by Amanda Quadrini / Contributor

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4. Lower trunk rotation

How to: Lie on your back, bend your knees, and place your feet on the floor. Rotate your knees to the opposite side of your surgery, then slide your surgical arm out to the side. Keeping your arm flat on the floor, continue sliding it until it's stretched overhead. Complete 3 to 10 repetitions.

Adding these simple yet effective stretches to your routine may be just the thing to support a more pain-free recovery.

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