Empowering breast cancer survivors through exercise

Last Modified: 8/13/2020

Cancer strength ABC program

Each person’s breast cancer experience is unique to them, yet for many patients, exercise can provide significant benefits in recovery, as well as in moving toward a wellness mindset. For that reason, Parkview rehab departments at facilities in Allen and Huntington counties are offering a new program, Strength After Breast Cancer, or Strength ABC. Highly experienced and specially trained physical therapists at Parkview Regional Medical Center and Parkview Huntington Hospital are the first to provide this program, implemented in collaboration with the Breast Care Team at Parkview Cancer Institute. Here, certified lymphedema therapists Lynn Merrill and Carol Molitor give an overview of the program that has them excited about helping cancer survivors take charge and feel better.

When a patient gets diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s the beginning of a journey. Through this journey, steps in cancer treatment often include surgery to remove the cancer and some combination of chemotherapy, radiation, cancer-fighting medications and breast reconstruction. Treatment is individualized for each person based on the type of breast cancer involved.

Physical therapy can alleviate some side effects of cancer treatment. For example, 35–58% of breast cancer survivors develop arm or shoulder issues including:

  • Lymphedema which involves swelling, pain and discomfort of the hand, arm, breast or trunk
  • Rotator cuff problems
  • Stiffness of the shoulder
  • Loss of strength
  • Difficulty reaching overhead or behind the back

These uncomfortable and frustrating conditions are treatable, and the new Strength ABC program can help breast cancer survivors prevent or overcome them. 

Strength ABC empowers breast cancer survivors, helping them to reduce their risk of developing lymphedema, reduce the worsening of the condition and even improve the function of the arm. The most exciting part of this program is that it involves early intervention. The earlier lymphedema is addressed, the better the outcome. 

Linda Han, MD, Parkview Cancer Institute, has played an integral part in the implementation of Strength ABC at Parkview Health and will refer her patients to the program.  

“Breast cancer-related lymphedema after surgery and radiation can be devastating for our patients,” Dr. Han said. “The Strength ABC program not only addresses early treatment that can reverse lymphedema, but more importantly, provides simple and effective interventions to prevent this potential complication from ever occurring. We are fortunate to have a great prevention program led by our certified lymphedema specialists that can significantly improve the lives of our cancer patients.”

The program begins with a physical therapy evaluation with a certified lymphedema specialist. The next step involves participation in an educational session on lymphedema: What it is, the signs and symptoms, how to prevent it and how to treat it. Then, patients begin learning the exercises, one-on-one, with a physical therapist, which typically happens in four sessions.

The sessions are spaced one to two weeks apart so patients can go home and try the customized exercises on their own. Each week involves learning new movements and how to advance them until the full progressive weightlifting program is covered. Once patients are comfortable with the home program, they graduate and continue the exercises on their own. If at any time they have difficulty or concerns, they can return to physical therapy for additional assistance.

Learning proper form and weight progression for each exercise gives patients the flexibility to choose how they’d like to work out. Patients may choose to keep exercising at home with hand weights or go to a gym/fitness club where they can use free weights or weight machines.

Patients who have gone through the Strength ABC program experience these benefits:

  • Reduced onset or reduced worsening of lymphedema
  • Reduced arm dysfunction
  • Improved strength and energy
  • Reduced body fat
  • Improved body image
  • A general reduction in side effects of cancer treatment

An added benefit of this physical therapy program is that exercise is associated with a reduced recurrence of cancer.

Additionally, any breast cancer survivor, with or without lymphedema, is eligible for the Strength ABC program, regardless of whether their breast cancer treatment was recently or years ago. Furthermore, patients can self-refer; a physician referral is not needed. Strength ABC is also covered by insurance, depending on the carrier, under the same rules as a physical therapy treatment. Patients pay co-pays or deductibles according to their insurance plans.

For more information on the program, call the PRMC rehab team at 260-266-4080 or the PHH rehab team at 260-355-3240.

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