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With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this is an excellent time to talk about an unfortunate diagnosis that affects many people and families every year. As of 2020, there were 2.26 million cases of Breast Cancer diagnosed around the globe, making it the most commonly diagnosed cancer. Estimates show that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their life. 

Breast Cancer occurs because of uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells within the breast. The reason this occurs is because of abnormal changes in the genes that code for cell growth in the body. Typically, old or damaged cells die, while healthy cells grow and divide. When damaged cells continue to divide uncontrollably, they are considered cancerous cells or malignant cells. These cancerous cells can form into big groups of tissue which results in tumors. 

While many men and women who are diagnosed with Breast Cancer often have no symptoms at all, the most common symptom is a lump located around the breast area. Lumps are more likely to be cancerous if they are painless, hard, and have irregular edges. Softer lumps may also be cancerous as well so it is important to make an appointment with your doctor if any lumps are noticed in and around the breast area of your body. Other common symptoms that can be noticed include swelling around the breast area as well as swollen lymph nodes in the upper extremity and chest area. Medical screening including Mammograms are utilized to screen for very early signs of breast cancer that can occur years before physical symptoms are felt on the body. Early diagnosis is critical as treatment outcomes are more likely to be successful, and the cancer can be discovered before it becomes more aggressive in nature.

Physical Therapy is often part of the plan of care after a patient undergoes surgery. Surgery is very common in the treatment plan of breast cancer including in the form of a double mastectomy or lumpectomy. Following surgery or even radiation treatment, it can be difficult for a patient to lift their arm over their head. Range of motion exercises as well as passive stretching can be utilized to reduce  stiffness and improve pain level that may be present for a patient. In addition, improving range motion can allow patients to maintain their functional level allowing a patient to stay independent with their daily activities. 

Lymphedema management is also where physical therapy plays a role in the treatment of Breast Cancer. Lymphedema is caused by lymph node damage resulting from surgery or radiation treatment of breast cancer. Lymphedema itself is the build up of lymph fluid that occurs as a result of the damaged lymph system. It can be very painful and result in infections if it is not managed properly. While Physical Therapy cannot cure lymphedema, specialized techniques and treatment methods have been developed in order to reduce swelling and improve function in the affected limb where the lymph is gathered.

Author: John Cichon, PT DPT at ATR Kirkwood.

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