Frozen Shoulder & Capsulitis after Breast Cancer Surgery

Frozen Shoulder & Capsulitis after Breast Cancer Surgery

Staying on topic with complications after breast cancer surgery. The two I’ll discuss today are common and can be disruptive to daily life. You’ve probably heard of frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis), but you may not have heard about breast capsulitis after breast reconstruction. Let’s dive in a little deeper.

What is capsulitis?

Capsulitis is inflammation of a joint capsule or the capsule around a breast implant that can lead to scar tissue adhesions and stiffening or immobilization of the joint or breast capsule. Uncomfortable – yes. Functionally limiting? Also, yes.

Frozen shoulder

While frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis) can occur after any shoulder injury, it can occasionally occur without any injury, and is more common in females and in people with diabetes mellitus or hypothyroidism. Frozen shoulder typically presents as a significant loss of motion in the shoulder with or without pain. To read a bit more about frozen shoulder, click here.

After breast cancer surgery, frozen shoulder is also common. For women aged 50-59, women who had mastectomy, or women who had breast reconstruction, the risk of developing frozen shoulder on the affected side is approximately 10%.1

Functionally, frozen shoulder leads to difficulty getting dressed, showering, combing your hair, lifting and carrying objects, driving, sleeping, and a whole lot of things we do on a daily basis.

Physical therapists treat frozen shoulder using manual therapy like joint mobilizations, teaching passive stretches and gradually strengthening around the joint as motion improves, and educating patients on healing timeline and ways to modify daily activities to improve use of the arm and reduce pain.

Rehab for frozen shoulder can sometimes take close to a year before a person feels “back to normal.” If caught early enough (i.e. during the “freezing phase” when motion loss begins to occur), a steroid injection can help to minimize the symptoms and restrictions. See your doctor right away if you notice a major loss in joint motion after breast cancer surgery.

Post-reconstruction capsulitis

Post-reconstruction capsulitis or capsular contracture can occur when fibrotic changes occur in the tissue capsule that forms around new breast impants. The breast around the new implant hardens, can become painful, and the breast shape can become distorted. To read a bit more about capsular contracture, click here.

Risk for developing capsular contracture is higher after radiation therapy or following infection, hematoma, or seroma that develops around a new implant. It is not clear whether smooth versus textured implants play a role in development of capsulitis.

Typically, if capsulitis occurs and is painful, distorts the breast shape or an underlying infection is present, revision surgery is needed. In Australia, approximately 39% of revision surgeries each year are due to capsular contracture.2 With early stage contracture, a physical therapist can use manual therapy to try to restore motion and prevent further fibrosis of the breast. A PT will also be sure to address shoulder, neck, and chest wall motion which could be compromised with post-implant capsulitis.

For both frozen shoulder and post-reconstruction capsulitis, getting into see a physical therapist early is important to prevent loss of motion and to reduce pain. Ideally, PT’s would love to see breast cancer patients within 4-6 weeks after breast surgery or reconstruction. Developing a relationship with a physical therapist during and after breast cancer can be a great asset to your health and wellness beyond cancer. Ask your surgeon for a referral or find a PT in your area here.

Aloha ❤

Lymphedema after Breast Cancer Surgery

Lymphedema after Breast Cancer Surgery

Lymphedema, a type of swelling in the arm, is an unfortunate complication after breast cancer surgery. I hope this blog will give you a better understanding of the lymphatic system and how to recognize early signs of lymphedema if you’ve recently had or are about to have breast cancer surgery.
*Technically, lymphedema can occur in any limb after lymph nodes are removed, but to keep it simple, I’ll focus on upper extremity lymphedema today.

Overview of Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is a network of nodes, vessels and organs that function as the body’s immune system. Lymphatic fluid (or lymph) is a protein-rich fluid which contains white blood cells. Lymph carries bacteria and viruses to be filtered through the lymph nodes and helps to prevent infection in the body.

Unlike blood, which is circulated around the body, lymph only flows one way (toward the heart) and requires a pressure gradient and muscular contractions to flow efficiently.

Anatomy of the Lymphatic System
Photo borrowed from Merck Manual1

Lymphatic Disruption after Breast Surgery

From my last post, you know that surgery for breast cancer usually involves removal of the tumor itself as well as removal of lymph nodes in the axilla (underarm). Lymph node removal is done because cancer cells can break off and travel through the lymphatic system and those nodes in the axilla are usually the first place they go.

To be sure the correct nodes are examined, the surgeon uses a radioactive dye to determine which nodes drain directly from the tumor site. Procedures to remove lymph nodes can range from removal of only a few nodes in a sentinel lymph node biopsy to many nodes (up to 20 nodes) in an axillary dissection.

With any amount of nodes removed (but especially with >5 nodes removed), there can be disruption to lymphatic flow through the axilla. In some cases, the lymph is unable to drain from the arm, resulting in lymphedema.

Lymphedema presents as a “swollen” arm, but this is not your usual swelling for two reasons. One, because lymphatic flow is a one-way street, the extra fluid needs to be physically cleared in some way (more on this in a minute…) and, two, because lymph is full of protein and fats that won’t drain into the venous system the way typical swelling does. The limb can actually grow and harden if left untreated.

Stages of Lymphedema – Photo borrowed from Sigvaris2

Studies show that lymphedema occurs in 0-3% of people who choose lumpectomy and up to 65-70% of those who have a modified radical mastectomy.3 Radiation therapy also seems to increase the risk of lymphedema. While many people will develop symptoms in the first 3 years after surgery, lymphedema can take up to 5 years to develop after cancer treatments. Be sure to ask your doctor or physical therapist what your risk for developing lymphedema is and learn about risk reduction practices.

Signs & Symptoms of Lymphedema

  • Swelling in the arm (usually only on side of surgery)
  • Heaviness/tightness of the arm
  • Reduced range of motion of the joints in the affected arm
  • Thickening/hardening of the skin

Physical Therapy Treatment for Lymphedema

A trained lymphedema physical therapist can be an incredible asset to someone who develops lymphedema. Ideally, a physical therapist will be able to work with a patient pre- and post-operatively to monitor girth measurements of the limb and identify lymphedema early on. Stage I lymphedema is potentially reversible, and both stage II and III can demonstrate significant reduction, so seeing a PT sooner than later is key in managing this condition!

With development of lymphedema, a physical therapist can perform or recommend the following interventions:

  • Bandaging of the limb or prescription of compression garments
  • Manual Lymphatic Drainage (specialized lymphatic massage)
  • Exercise prescription (progressive muscle pump, aerobic activity)
  • Patient education on proper skin care and prevention of infection

It’s important to see your doctor or physical therapist as soon as possible if you notice signs/symptoms of lymphedema. Here is a great resource to find a lymphedema specialist in your area. As always, feel free to reach out to me with any questions!

Aloha ❤

Big thanks to Joanne Zazzera, PT, DPT, WCS, for sharing her knowledge and editing this blog!

Physical Therapy after Breast Cancer Surgery

Physical Therapy after Breast Cancer Surgery

Ever since Angelina Jolie publicly addressed her preventative bilateral mastectomy in 2013, many women have the idea that removing both breasts is typical care for breast cancer. While a bilateral mastectomy is still a popular option (both to prevent recurrence and to reduce anxiety about recurrence), there are actually many options for women with breast cancer to consider.

Breast Surgery Overview

The goals of surgery are to remove as much of the cancer as possible and also to examine the lymph nodes nearby to determine how much the cancer has spread locally. Thus, a breast cancer surgery often includes one incision on the chest where the cancer is removed and one in the underarm where the lymph nodes are removed for biopsy. There are also options for breast reconstruction (which is usually multiple surgeries), should someone desire it for cosmetic purposes.

  • Options for breast surgery include:
    • Breast-conserving surgery or BCS (lumpectomy, partial mastectomy, etc.) – removal of part of the breast which contains cancer and a margin of normal cells surrounding the tumor.
    • Mastectomy
      • Simple – removal of all breast tissue including nipple and areola (and usually some skin, but it is possible to have skin- and/or nipple-sparing procedures).
      • Modified radical – removal of all breast tissue along with all lymph nodes under the arm.
      • Radical – removal of all breast tissue and the chest wall muscle (this surgery is rarely done unless the cancer has spread into the chest wall).
  • Types of lymph node removal include:
    • Sentinel lymph nose biopsy (SLNB) – removal of the lymph node(s) to which the cancer would likely spread first
    • Axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) – removal of many (usually less than 20) lymph nodes from under the arm
  • Optional breast reconstruction can include:
    • Implants
    • Autografts – tissue from another part of the body is used to recreate the breast (Reconstruction options are a whole post in itself!)

Many breast surgeons now push for breast conserving surgery (BCS) because having a more aggressive surgery doesn’t always result in better quality of life or reduce cancer survival rates significantly. In fact, having BCS in combination with radiation therapy has been proven to be equally, if not more, effective at improving survival rates than a mastectomy alone.1, 2 This information is especially important for those with triple negative breast cancer who do no have the option of hormonal therapy.

Of course, cancer stage (how large the tumor is and whether the cancer has spread) and grade (how quickly the cancer is growing) both influence the type of surgery and treatment someone may need. Discuss with your oncologist and surgeon which option is the best for you in your recovery.

Physical Therapy

No matter the type of surgery a person chooses for breast cancer treatment, a physical therapist is an integral part of post-surgical recovery. PTs help to maximize the body’s natural healing process, restore range of motion to the shoulder, neck and chest wall after surgery, perform scar mobilization and soft tissue work to the affected muscles, and (most importantly) help people to return to their usual activities!

Some post-op considerations for physical therapy after breast cancer include care of post-surgical drains, observance of proper wound care at the incision site, monitoring for signs of infection, and protecting sensitive skin with post-operative radiation. While all PTs are able to treat a patient post-surgically, there are oncology physical therapists who have more training to look for other complications, especially early signs of lymphedema and cording (stay tuned for my next post).

If you or a loved one are interested in trying physical therapy after breast cancer, ask your doctor for a referral. Most oncologists and breast surgeons work closely with physical therapists and they can send you to a PT they trust in your area. If you want to do some research on physical therapists who are familiar with breast cancer rehabilitation in your area, you can use the APTA PT Locator or search through the APTA Academy of Pelvic Health.

Hope this information is helpful – go schedule with your PT today!

Aloha ❤

Pink October

Pink October

Today is October 1, and there are so many things to celebrate this month! Before I get carried away – I want to remind you all that the first of the month is a great time to schedule or do your preventative screenings including your breast self-exam! Performance of routine self-exams help to identify cancerous tumors in earlier stages and can save your life! Go ahead and #FeelItOnTheFirst, and if you haven’t yet, schedule your annual mammogram!

Fun fact: 40% of all breast cancers are discovered by a self-exam!1

October has always been one of my favorite months for many reasons, but as a pelvic floor PT, I am thrilled that I get to celebrate National Physical Therapy Month and Breast Cancer Awareness month in one shot! I consider myself an “educator” by nature, and I always look forward to sharing information with my family and friends about the benefits of physical therapy, especially for our breast cancer thrivers and survivors.

I have several posts lined up for the next few weeks regarding breast cancer surgery, rehabilitation, and complications as well as some common pelvic floor concerns during breast cancer treatment. I look forward to sharing how a physical therapist can play an important role for our oncology patients as I experience my first Breast Cancer Awareness Month as someone living through breast cancer.

I also wanted to bring some awareness to something I hadn’t really given any thought to before I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s no secret that every October, things turn pink all over the place. I’m talking pink products in stores, pink foods, pink cleats in the NFL…you catch the drift. Companies all over the place are eager to jump on board with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and yet, not all of these companies have the best intentions in mind.

In fact, many companies profit tremendously by slapping a pink label on their product and saying that a certain amount of proceeds go to breast cancer research. We call this “pinkwashing,” and as it turns out, many companies are capitalizing on this terrible disease and only donate a small portion of their sales (or none at all) to support breast cancer research or patients.

Unfortunate as it is, I ask that if you do want to support those who are or who will be affected by breast cancer (remember 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime), please do your research on which companies provide support to breast cancer research or directly to breast cancer patients before you buy that pink label.

Let’s turn Awareness into Action! Here are a few of my favorite breast cancer organizations to support:

  • Breast Cancer Research Foundation – your donation goes to sponsor research grants in many areas related to breast cancer. BCRF is recognized by Charity Watch as a top-rated cancer fundraising organization.
  • TNBC Foundation – your donation will go to improving research and quality of life and education for those living with Triple Negative Breast Cancer. I personally have benefited tremendously from the community associated with the TNBC Foundation and the educational events this foundation hosts!
  • METAvivor – your donation will go to improving research for those living with stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
  • Compassion that Compels – if you’re looking to donate to a smaller organization that provides direct support to cancer thrivers – this is a great one! Your donation will go to providing emotional support, chemo care packages, and prayer to women with breast cancer. I loved receiving a Compassion Bag from this lovely organization!

I hope you are as excited about the possibilities in October as I am! I am also on track to complete chemotherapy at the end of the month (actually, I completed #13/16 TODAY) so it’s going to be a party for sure! Take care of yourselves and I look forward to sharing a TON of good info with you this month!

Aloha ❤