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Dealing with Shoulder Pain After Breast Cancer Treatment

Breast cancer treatment is a life-saver but also can have side effects, including some related to shoulder pain. It is good to start doing the exercises as soon as the doctor recommends it. After that, a regular tune-up with a physical therapist can help.
PUBLISHED March 08, 2019
Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website: www.feliciamitchell.net

Would it not be nice if we could wake up from breast cancer treatments like new again? Although we are fortunate to have so many targeted treatments, sometimes we end up with annoying physical challenges that range from the minor to the major. One minor repercussion is the effect on shoulder mobility.

While lymphedema was not a total surprise for me during the course of treatment and I was prepared, my shoulder impingement complications did become a challenge to work through. Over time, I learned that an assault on the rotator cuff is not unusual after a mastectomy and/or radiation, as stated in this ASCO Post article.

In the big picture of survival, dealing with restricted movement and chronic pain in a shoulder is a small dab in the canvas of my cancer experience. Even so, combined with lymphedema, a shoulder impingement can present a challenge to body and attitude. There are just some things I cannot do as well as I once did. Each year, though, I get better at maneuvering my changed body. Now I can change a ceiling lightbulb without bursting into tears.

I think back to when my surgeon showed me an exercise to begin right after the mastectomy, fingers "walking" up a wall. This was to help with mobility. Did I do this exercise enough? As I developed both lymphedema and the impingement issue over the next year, I visited a physical therapist who assigned additional exercises.

Now I visit the physical therapist every year or so for a tune-up. The last time, I waited too long and had significant pain growing from my shoulder. I am not a masochist—I am fortunate to have a high threshold for pain, but that means at times I put pain out of mind until my body screams at me.

We should listen to pain even when it whispers. Mine knows how to tell me to move, to call the doctor, to see my physical therapist, to swim. It is never a good idea to ignore pain. It can tell us to be wary of significant changes in the status quo in case we need to follow up with a doctor because sometimes shoulder pain means metastases to the bone, according to the Mayo Clinic.

While I prefer exercises, I should recognize other modes of pain management. At times, I will take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication. When an orthopedic doctor once suggested steroid shots when pain flared, I declined. Physical therapy and home-based exercises work well for me (if I remember to keep up). This does not mean that other people should not explore other interventions for pain.

Because I am thankful to be surviving cancer, it is unusual for me to vent about my new normal. That may be because I am the sort of person who blames herself. Rather than patting myself on the back for regaining almost all mobility in my right arm, which took work, I sometimes worry about what I did wrong. Then I lift both arms into yoga's tree pose and take a deep breath.

To learn more, please visit: American Cancer Society: Exercises after Breast Cancer Surgery.

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