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Exercises after mastectomy or lumpectomy

Find out how to do your exercises after breast cancer surgery.

After breast cancer surgery you might develop a stiff shoulder or arm. Your nurse or a physiotherapist will ask you to do regular exercises after surgery to help you recover. They should give you a leaflet which explains the exercises. 

Simple arm exercises can help to:

  • keep your movement full in your arm and shoulder
  • relieve pain and stiffness
  • reduce swelling

When to start

You start the exercises the day after surgery if possible. You should aim to do the exercises 2 or 3 times a day. The goal is to get your arm and shoulder moving as well as it did before the surgery.

What exercises to do

Begin each session by circling your shoulders to get the muscles moving. Other early exercises are

  • brushing or combing your hair
  • slowly reaching up behind your back to touch just under the shoulder blades

Once your drains and stitches are out, and as you get stronger and more confident you can do more of the exercises and increase the range of movements.

Below is a short video showing you how to do exercises after breast cancer surgery.

Breast Cancer Care have a leaflet called Exercises after breast cancer, which shows the whole exercise programme you need to do.

Any problems

Talk to your surgeon or breast care nurse if you have ongoing problems with arm or shoulder pain, stiffness or swelling.

Sometimes fluid collects near the wound, this is called a seroma. Sometimes the fluid needs to be drained and it may affect the movement in your arm. Speak with your doctor if this happens to you. 

If you haven’t seen a physiotherapist already and you are struggling with pain or lack of movement, they can arrange for you to see one. They can give you more exercises to do and offer advice on physical activity. 

Scar tissue in the armpit (cording)

Some women develop scar tissue in the armpit after lymph node removal. The connective tissues in the armpit get inflamed, which forms one or more tight bands. This usually happens within the first few weeks or months after the operation.

The scar tissue is called cording or banding or axillary web syndrome. It can feel something like a guitar string. It can extend down the arm past the elbow, possibly as far as the wrist or thumb.

Cording is harmless but can be painful and can limit your arm movement. Massaging the area regularly can help. Tell your breast care nurse if you develop cording. They can refer you to a physiotherapist. They can show you how to massage the area and teach you stretching exercises. It usually gets better within a few months. Other things that can help include moist heat and anti inflammatory painkillers.

Picture showing cording in the armpit

It is important to massage the scar area to keep the skin as supple as possible. This can be done with a gentle moisturiser. If you are having radiotherapy, check with your specialist which moisturiser is suitable. 

Breast reconstruction

If you have had breast reconstruction, the exercises you need to do are different and depend on the type of reconstruction you have had.

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.