Exercise & breast cancer

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Why exercise after breast cancer?

There are several very important reasons to exercise and stretch regularly after breast cancer, both immediately after the surgery but after radiotherapy, during chemotherapy, whilst taking herceptin, whilst taking hormone therapies and in the long term:


Exercises immediately after surgery

Following breast and armpit surgery and particularly if radiotherapy has also been given, it is important to regularly practice a few simple exercises to reduce the risk of shoulder stiffness, lymphoedema, skin, muscle and underlying tissues thickness (fibrosis). Exercises should start as soon as feasible after surgery to alleviate post operative pain and promote a good recovery. At this early stage however, exercise advice is best sort form the individual surgical team and may change with local policies an techniques, after that period the following may be helpful:-

The monkey swing:

  • Stand squarely and bend forward at the waist.

  • Circle entire arm clockwise, then anti-clockwise.

  • Swing forward and then backward

  • Swing arm sideways away from body and back again

  • Particularly good in the early weeks after surgery 

 Walk the wall:

  • Stand straight facing a wall  
  • Stretch upright as much as comfortable  
  • Place your hand on a wall so you are in the most comfortable position possible  
  • Walk your hand up then down the wall. Repeat 10 times  

The hair brush:

Shoulder shrugging:

Shoulder exercises for the long term

The following exercises are recommended when the initial scars have healed. It is advisable to perform these everyday and continue them during and after radiotherapy. In the long terms 5 minutes a day is still recommended to prevent shoulder stiffness and reduce the risk of breast or chest wall pain.

 The praying mantis:        

  • Place the hands on shoulders (or at the level of the shoulders)  
  • Move the elbows forwards and upwards then down and inwards  
  • Repeat each movement 10 times  

The fan:


  • Put your hands out horizontally in front of you  
  • Take them up above your head as far as you can
  • Drop them down to the waist  

Big bird:


  • Starting with the arms straight out to the side of the body
  • Raise and lower your arms as high as you comfortably can.
  • Repeat 10 times – should look like a small bird flapping its wings slowly

Small bird:


  • Place hands on shoulders
  • Move elbows sideways and upwards then back down.
  • Should look like a small bird flapping its wings slowly
  • Repeat 10 times

Show me the money (side):

  • Raise the arms straight out to the side of the body, from the shoulders  
  • Rotate the palms of the hand to face upwards then downwards  
  • Repeat 10 times – should look you’re asking for money to be put in your hand.  

Show me the money (front):

Finger walking (neck):

 Finger walking (back)

The hand over:

  • Put your right hand behind your back.  
  • Practice passing a small, light object, e.g., purse, make up bag over your left shoulder to your other hand.  
  • Repeat and swap hands.  
  • Your ability to do this depends on your pre-operative range of movement.  

In addition to these exercise it is important to gently massage the skin on the breast, chest wall or surrounding tissues. Surgery and radiotherapy can both cause the underlying tissues to be less mobile and flexible. This a major cause of breast and chest wall pain. Local gentle massage can produced some excellent results and there is absolutely no evidence that the urban myth of “it could spread cancer cells around” has any truth. It is particularly good on the breast itself and the surrounding skin which may have stuck down onto the ribs. Put some extra virgin olive oil on the fingers and gently try to roll the skin over the ribs – be as firm as possible but do not cause any pain or bruising as this will be counter productive. At first you will not notice an improvement but with daily persistence the mobility will improve along with the pain.


In addition to these shoulder exercises it is advisable to perform regular neck exercises and generally increase weekly exercise levels. The target should be greater than 2.5 hours of vigorous exercises  a week - find out more about the benefits of exercise and search for exercise facilities in your area.



Links and further resources:

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