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The Benefits of Pilates for Breast Cancer Rehabilitation

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

October is breast cancer awareness month. The diagnosis of breast cancer is scary and life-changing. Breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer amongst women (men can also get breast cancer). There are many forms of treatment including chemotherapy, hormone therapy, lymph node removal, and mastectomy to name a few. The period of recovery from treatment will vary by the individual, but it is physically and emotionally draining. Exercise can play a big part in the recovery process. Pilates, in particular, can be very effective due to the low impact of the exercises and the ability to modify exercises to provide strength, flexibility, and mobility that may have been lost due to treatment and/or surgery. Pilates is also good for boosting self-esteem, confidence, and improving an overall sense of well-being.

Some of the side effects of breast cancer treatment can include weight gain, atrophy of muscles, swelling, fatigue, pain, stiffness, and scar tissue. Strength and mobility in the upper body is often diminished, which can make everyday activities difficult. Medications and chemotherapy can cause menopause to occur prematurely and can increase bone loss and the risk of osteoporosis in women. Pilates emphasizes the connection between the mind and body and can help to correct postural issues as well as increasing core strength. A specialized program is vital due to the many contraindications and precautions that are involved during the breast cancer recovery process. Limited range of motion in the shoulders and weakness in the mid to upper back can be helped by progressing exercises slowly and gradually in order to let the body adjust and recover. Starting with foundational movements and range of motion exercises with no weight and building up over time is the safest way to begin an exercise program.

Incorporating healthy lifestyle habits are an important part of the recovery process from breast cancer. Staying consistent with physical activity along with decreasing stress will help to increase strength, bone density, mobility, as well as improving self-esteem. The combination of improved mental and physical well-being will help the recovery and remission process. Nutrition is a key component as well, it is the fuel that the body needs to recover. Decreasing sugar and adding more plant-based foods can help boost the immune system.

Having a strong support system is another key factor in recovery from breast cancer. Family, friends, loved ones, and support groups are a few examples of support systems that can be valuable to breast cancer survivors. Pilates can help to provide an environment that is safe and supportive as well as empowering due to the fact that it gives a deeper connection to the mind, body, and spirit. It can also be very powerful because it helps breast cancer survivors gain back a sense of control due to the fact that they are taking an active role in their healing.

What role can Pilates play in specific issues faced by breast cancer survivors?

  1. Fatigue: Fatigue can be one of the biggest issues, both during an after treatment. Pilates is gentle and low-impact and can be beneficial at building strength and endurance gradually.

  2. Pain/Range of Motion: It is common to have pain and loss of range of motion in the chest and shoulder area. Due to the fact that many exercise are in the supine (laying on your back) position, the back and neck are supported. The shoulder girdle can be strengthened in a comfortable and safe position which is helpful in regaining muscular balance.

  3. Posture: Posture can be affected due to surgery. The back can become rounded and the head and shoulders may become flexed forward. Each exercise is performed with control and with emphasis on alignment. Pilates can also help with mobility in areas such as the chest and shoulders that can be tight after surgery of treatment.

  4. Lymphedima: Lymph nodes may be removed during breast cancer treatment. Lymphatic fluid can pool in the area and cause swelling. Gentle exercise in a specific sequence can help the muscles contract,which will move the fluid into an area where it can more easily drain.

Pilates can be an effective and safe way to rehabilitate from breast cancer treatment. It is best to check with your physician to obtain clearance before starting an exercise program. It is a very effective way to connect with the body and increase your level of confidence.


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