Top Exercise Tips from Specialist Cancer Physiotherapist
My name is Hannah and I am a specialist cancer physiotherapist, with a fire in my belly to
help people live their life fully, during and after treatment. Earlier this year, I started my
online business StrongerThan supporting people with the physical side effects of cancer,
without having to leave their homes!
I was delighted to write this blog post, because ELAN’s mission is the same as my own; to provide confidence and empowerment to incredible people going through incredibly difficult times.
I am going to be sharing my practical top tips on what to expect before, during and after
breast cancer surgery to help you through your journey.
So, you have your surgery date in the diary; it is a good idea to do a little planning, to ease
day-to-day life while you are healing after your operation.
● Do some rearranging. Move mugs and dishes down from high cupboards, so
they are easy to reach. This will reduce the need to reach up above your head while
in the kitchen. The same goes for bedroom and bathroom essentials.
● Heavier, repetitive chores such as ironing, hoovering and changing bed sheets are
not advised for 6 weeks post-surgery. In fact, any lifting should be kept to less than
1kg. People want to help the people they care about - so, dish out the practical
jobs to loved ones who offer to help. If you live alone, plan ahead and prioritise. Are
you in a position to hire a cleaner for an hour or so, or send your clothes to the
laundrette? If not, don’t feel guilty about not doing such tasks - leave it for a couple of
weeks and own those creases!
● Prepare some meals ahead of time. You may have family or friends at home who
will help whip up your daily meals. If you live alone or have family who will be out and
about, a batch of frozen home-cooked meals is a perfect solution for fuss-free meals!
● Dig out or buy some dresses/tops/shirts/cardigans with zips or buttons at the front.
This will reduce the need to lift your arms above your head.
● You will also feel most comfortable in soft, loose trousers or leggings, with an
elasticated waist. You will not want to be wearing jeans or compressive active-wear,
especially if you’ve had a DIEP procedure.
● Button up pyjamas will be the easiest to put on and off for sleeping or resting.
● Non-compressive, high waisted knickers are best, particularly if you’ve had a
DIEP procedure (so the elastic sits above your scar). Think Bridget Jones in cotton!
● Comfortable and appropriate bras are essential. No underwires or push-ups here
please! Soft material and a front fastening are the most comfortable (oh hello ELAN!).
● Grab yourself some slip-on shoes. It can get uncomfortable bending down to tie
your laces every time you pop your shoes on.
● Get yourself a heart shaped pillow, to give some support and comfort between your
breast and arm while you are healing. Some charities, for example Jen’s Friends, will
supply these pillows for free. Alternatively, you can purchase them on Etsy or if you
or a friend fancy yourself as a seamstress, check Youtube for tutorials on how to
make your own heart shaped pillow.
● A drain bag (or two) is another very helpful addition, to keep your drains safe and
discreet when moving around. Check out Drain Dollies or Etsy!
● If you have a routine, you may wish to get your beauty procedures done before
your surgery, as you will feel limited for some time after your operation. If you get
your nails done, avoid shellac as the medical team may need to remove polish from
one nail to help monitor your observations during and after surgery.
In the hospital
No-one wants to be in hospital, so you will want to pack everything you need to feel safe and
comfortable. Consider the following items in your hospital bag:
● A dressing gown (you can buy post-surgery gowns that have internal pockets where
you can keep your drains).
● Grippy socks or slippers (if you want to avoid the hospital issue
● The comfortable clothes and underwear listed above, for when you are leaving the
● Your drain bags
● Your heart pillow - especially helpful between you and your seatbelt on the drive
● Snacks for after your surgery, in case there is a wait for your hospital meals
● Phone and charger, to keep in touch with loved ones.
● Entertainment such as books, laptop, headphones, magazines, journal and pens,
● Toiletries, such as toothbrush, toothpaste, mints/gum, moisturiser, lip balm, hand
cream, make-up (if you’d like!) etc.
After your surgery
Depending on the type of surgery you have, you may stay in hospital for several days after
your procedure. You will be encouraged to sit out of bed and start walking as soon as
possible, in order to prevent any post-surgical complications. You will be prescribed pain
medication which will allow you to move more comfortably.
You will also be prescribed post-operative exercises, which should be taken as seriously
as your medicine. If the benefits of these exercises could be put into a pill, it would be
prescribed to you alongside your pain relief!
These 6 key exercises will help reduce the risk of post surgical complications, such as Seroma, cording or Lymphoedema. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts, so you will need to do your exercises 2-3 times a day. Start the following exercises on day one after your operation:
Exercise One: Shoulder Shrugs
Sit comfortably with your arms relaxed by your side. Slowly raise your shoulders up towards
your ears and hold for 5 seconds, before lowering your shoulders. Aim to make the space
between your ears and shoulders as large as possible. Repeat 10 times.
Exercise Two: Shoulder Rolling
Sit with your arms resting by your sides. Roll your shoulders forwards, imaging your
squeezing them together in front of you. Continue rolling upwards towards your ears, then
squeezing your shoulder blades together behind you, before returning to your starting
position. Repeat 10 times, then change direction.
Exercise Three: Shoulder Flexion
Place your hand on the same shoulder of the affected side. Raise your arm to the front, to
around 90 degrees (shoulder height). Lower your arm to your starting position and repeat 10
Exercise Four: Shoulder Abduction
Place your hand on the same shoulder of the affected side. Raise your arm out to the side,
to around 90 degrees (shoulder height). Lower your arm to your starting position and repeat
Exercise Five: Winging It!
Place your hand behind your head, with your elbow pointing forwards. Slowly bring your arm
outwards, to point your elbow to the side, keeping your hand behind your head. Return to
your starting position and repeat 10 times.
Exercise Six: Back-Scratchers
Stand or sit with your hand resting by your side. Raise your hand behind your back, reaching
towards the opposite shoulder blade, as high as you can go (comfortably!). Return to the
starting position and repeat 10 times.
At one week after your surgery, continue the same exercises above, but using a straight
arm for exercises three and four.
At two weeks after your surgery, continue these exercises lying flat on your back, to add a
little gravity and further stretch the muscles under your arms.
If you have had a DIEP procedure, you will also be prescribed abdominal exercises that you
will also need to do daily while healing.
In the early days after your surgery, keep hydrated and be sure to take daily walks and
plenty of rest. After a few weeks, you will start to feel more like yourself and be able to start
returning to your day-to-day activities, such as driving, house-work and gentle exercise.
A physiotherapist is an important person to have on your team! StrongerThan provides
support, motivation and advice for those wanting to feel strong in body and mind after breast
surgery. To find out more, see my website or follow me on social media.