Helping breast cancer survivors recover

Astrid Koch demonstrates some arm-raising exercises for breast cancer survivors.

Physiotherapists Kate Brinckmann and Astrid Koch spoke to breast cancer survivors on the topic of moving on after cancer and dealing with a condition called lymphoedema which may occur after treatment.

At the monthly Reach for Recovery talk in Mowbray last month, Ms Brinckmann said many survivors were not even aware of lymphoedema which is the abnormal swelling of the skin and underlying tissue, most commonly in the arms or legs. This could cause the affected area to feel tight and heavy, restrict limb movement, cause a pins and needles tingling affect and the thickening or the hardening of skin.

Ms Brinckmann said while not everyone experienced lymphoedema after breast cancer, it could happen to anyone at any time, so surgeons were opting for less invasive surgeries to prevent this.

“Many patients are not aware of this condition. Doctors or surgeons often don’t want to scare patients as they may be on 24/7 watch for signs of this, instead of focusing on their recovery,” she said.

The most common treatment includes manual lymphatic drainage, compression, exercise and skin care, along with a home-management programme.

Ms Brinckmann said physical complications of breast cancer included seroma — a build up of fluid where a person’s tissue had been removed; cording — which feels like a tight cord running from the armpit to the arm; stiff or painful shoulders, and lymphoedema.

Ms Koch said many of the complications were avoidable if patients were aware of the do’s and don’ts when it came to recovery. She encouraged survivors to exercise regularly and demonstrated some exercises, including deep breathing, neck rotations, shoulder rolls, leg marching and head tilts.

Speaking on how to reduce the risk of lymphoedema, Ms Koch said survivors should not ignore the signs of swelling and should immediately see a doctor when they noticed that or redness or experienced a fever.

They should keep the area around the arm clean, not have injections or blood drawn on the affected side and stay hydrated.

She said survivors also needed to be cautious of skincare products and make sure they were also PH neutral.

“Survivors are unfortunately always at risk of getting lymphoedema but the earlier you catch it and start treating it, the better,” said Ms Koch.

At the meeting, Joan Morkel, who is receiving treatment for lymphoedema, said she had had no complications or side effects after the surgery or the radiation, but the lymphoedema had set in one year later.

“It is different for everyone. I was able to go about my life as normal after surgery and continue with work and my travels. I started physiotherapy a day after my surgery and have been doing it for the past three years,” she said.

Ms Morkel said she did daily physiotherapy on her own, at home and had to have her arm wrapped to treat the lymphoedema.

The Reach for Recovery’s Cape Peninsula branch holds monthly meetings at the Resource Centre of the CANSA building, 37A Main Road, Mowbray. For more information contact Dee Jacobs on 083 306 1941 or Allison Scott on 021 689 5347. during office hours.