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Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer Through Physical Activity

Learn How To Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer by Engaging in Regular Physical Activity

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign intended to increase awareness of the disease, the screening tools used to identify it, the treatments available, and what you can do to prevent it. There are many lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk for breast cancer, but in this blog we’d like to put out focus on just one: getting regular exercise and physical activity.

Natalie Baccile Rodrigues; Doctor of Physical Therapy, Certified Lymphedema Therapist at the Twin Boro Clara Maas Medical Center has been working with breast cancer patients since 2013 when she graduated from the The Norton School of Lymphatic Therapy.

“Many patients we work with do not realize that in addition to oncology, radiation, and surgery, there is also a wellness accept to treatment and rehabilitation. Our clinic designs personalized programs and interventions based on the individual goals and presentation to help them improve their quality of life.”

Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women, as about 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with it at some point in their lives. Each year, about 240,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed, and about 40,000 women lose their lives to the disease, making it the second most deadly type of cancer in women. Over the past 10 years, the number of women affected by breast cancer has generally remained about the same, while the amount of women who have died because of it has slightly declined. While this is encouraging and shows a positive trend, there is still a great deal that needs to be done to better understand how to treat and prevent breast cancer.

When it comes to risk factors for breast cancer development, it’s important to realize that some factors—like age, race, and a family history of breast cancer or mutated genes—are completely out of your control and cannot be changed. But there are also a number of other factors that affect the risk for breast cancer that you have the power to modify. These are generally referred to as lifestyle changes, which include things like not smoking, having a healthy diet, limiting alcohol consumption, and breastfeeding, all of which have been found to reduce the risk for breast cancer. But one of the most important lifestyle changes you can make is to engage in exercise or physical activity on a regular basis.

Research has shown that women who exercise regularly have a lower risk of getting breast cancer than those who are not active. When the evidence is viewed as a whole, it appears that regular exercise reduces breast cancer risk by about 10-20%, and this preventative effect is seen most prominently in post-menopausal women. It’s not entirely clear why increased activity levels have a positive effect on breast cancer risk, but it is known that overweight and obesity are major risk factors for breast cancer, and regular exercise can lead to more regulated weight levels. Maintaining a healthy weight can also help regulate hormones and boosts the immune system, both of which can in turn help to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells.

Make Exercise a Priority

Natalie Rodrigues notes that a lot of the breast cancer population – especially after surgery – are afraid to move. She states, “Attending a physical therapy evaluation can actually counteract a lot of the negative effects of treatment and promote return to normal activities and use of the affected arm or arms.”

So how much physical activity do you need?

Unfortunately, there’s no ideal amount of time that’s guaranteed to reduce or eliminate your risk for breast cancer. But the general concept is that more activity is better than none, and more is better than less.

The American Cancer Society (and several other major health organizations) recommends getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity every week. Moderate-intensity activities include brisk walking, slow bicycling, golfing, dancing, and yard work, while vigorous-intensity activities include jogging, fast bicycling, swimming, soccer, and basketball.

Research has also shown that vigorous-intensity activities are more effective for reducing breast cancer risk than moderate-intensity activities, but if you’re not capable of engaging in these types of activities at first, it’s fine to start slow and gradually work your way up.

Here are a few additional tips to help you become more physically active to reduce your breast cancer risk:

  • Use the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible
  • Park your car in the furthest spot of the parking lot
  • Avoid sitting for extended periods of time; if you work a desk job, consider investing in a stand-up desk and take frequent breaks to get up and walk around
  • Take your pet for long walks on a regular basis
  • Wear an activity tracker to monitor your daily steps and activity levels
  • Find activities that your entire family can participate in
  • Consider joining a recreational sports team
  • Use a stationary bicycle or treadmill while watching TV

If you’re interested in learning about more ways to become more active in your life, our physical therapists can help by designing a general exercise program specifically for you.

Clara Maass Team Can Help Address the Side Effects Associated with Breast Cancer Treatment

In recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, our Belleville physical therapists are doing our part to spread awareness to breast cancer patients and those who are concerned with their risk. In our last blog, we discussed the importance of regular exercise and physical activity as an important lifestyle change that’s been found to reduce the risk for breast cancer. Now, we’d like to take the opportunity to explain that side effects are common after breast cancer treatment, but our physical therapists can help you address them with a structured, personalized exercise program.

“Side effects from radiation and surgical intervention can include: limited range of motion, weakness, fatigue, soft tissue restriction, pain, depression, and inability to fulfill responsibilities such as work, household chores and child care. Our program can be specifically tailored to the individual needs and goals of each patient to directly help with those side effects.”

Natalie and her team believes in a multidisciplinary approach and implements a collaborative treatment plan by communicating with the patient’s oncologist and surgeon to achieve the maximum benefit for each individual.

Many women diagnosed with breast cancer will at some point undergo some type of surgical procedure, such as a breast biopsy, lymph node biopsy or removal, lumpectomy, mastectomy or breast reconstruction, which are all in addition to other treatments like radiation or chemotherapy. After completing these treatments, a large portion of patients will go to experience a variety of side effects, such as pain and stiffness in the chest, shoulder, and back muscles, or nerve irritation that can cause numbness, pain and a tingling sensation.

Each patient’s recovery is different depending on the cancer’s severity and what treatments were used, but side effects often reduce flexibility and range of motion, which can prevent women from returning to their normal daily activities. In addition, any woman that has undergone various treatments and hospitalizations is usually very deconditioned due to lack of physical activity and will have difficulty functioning normally.

How Physical Therapists Promote Personalized Exercise

This is where we come in, as our physical therapists can perform expert evaluations to identify each patient’s rehabilitation needs based on their condition and the side effects they’re experiencing. Once a patient is medically cleared for physical therapy—which usually occurs after adequate healing of an incision, if necessary—patients will undergo a program to increase their strength, range of motion, and endurance so that they can go about their days more easily and with less pain.

Below are a few highlights of what a post-cancer exercise program will typically entail:

  • Targeted exercises to address lymphedema, or chronic swelling that usually occurs in the arm on the same side of surgery; we also have a certified lymphedema specialist at Clara Maas Medical Center that works with cancer patients to prevent and manage lymphedema
  • A series of basic exercises to stretch and strengthen the muscles of the back, shoulder, chest and arms to prevent stiffness and reduce pain; the arms and shoulders are often particularly affected by cancer treatments, and increased flexibility will help to improve posture and reduce pain
  • A supervised, gradual return to exercise, which can also reduce nerve irritation and fatigue
  • A focused effort to help patients regain their independence in daily activities by simulating the ones that are difficult to complete

Going into remission from breast cancer should be celebrated, but this process can be burdened by the physical side effects cancer treatments can cause. At Strulowitz & Gargiulo Twin Boro Physical Therapy, it’s our mission to help you return to your pre-cancer physical activity levels in a manner that’s feasible, gradual, and personally tailored for you.

Contact Strulowitz & Gargiulo Twin Boro Physical Therapy at 201-792-3840 to schedule an appointment today at our flagship Jersey City clinic, our Bayonne location, the Jersey City Medical Center Outpatient Therapy Department, or Clara Maas Medical Center in Belleville, NJ.

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