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Surviving Breast Cancer and its Side Effects One Exercise at a Time
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Surviving Breast Cancer and its Side Effects One Exercise at a Time

Exercises specifically designed for breast cancer survivors are helpful after surgery and years out, if we remember to do them!
PUBLISHED May 25, 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:

Last week, after a visit to my physical therapist for a lymphedema check and tune-up on exercises I do for my post-mastectomy rotator cuff impingement, I pulled "The Breast Cancer Survivor's Fitness Plan," a 2007 Harvard Health publication by Carolyn M. Kaelin (written with Francesca Coltera, Josie Gardiner and Joy Prouty) from my bookshelf.

I was intrigued to see that I had marked a page called "Full Body Stretch," a simple exercise similar to one the physical therapist (PT) reminded me to do. What you do is lie down flat on the floor, extend your legs and then extend arms overhead. My PT has me grasp one hand with the other in a certain way to pull a particular muscle that can draw up for me. Curious, I flipped through the pages of exercises for a reminder of other exercises I might try.

Alas, I was reminded of what I might have done as soon as I got home from surgery. I am sure that I could have done more then. Hindsight, however, is 20-20. Because I have retained good arm function and have kept lymphedema under wraps, I should feel okay about myself, even if I have to remain diligent.

When the glass is half full, I realize that I will always have to stay physically active to maintain the lymphedema and to minimize shoulder and back issues. Being active, not just for post-cancer body maintenance, is a good thing as one ages. It is good for balance and for mental clarity among other things.

When the glass looks half empty, I feel like a slug, as if the small room I have set up to devote to exercise (along with what I do in the great outdoors and in a rec center with a pool I could visit more) is a shrine to hopefulness. It reminds me that some days I should experiment with more yoga. More anything! But maybe all we can do is the best we can, rather than beating ourselves up for not exercising more.

In my little room, I have small weights, a vintage exercise bike, a mini trampoline and other exercise-oriented objects designed to get me moving. I also keep my ukulele in this room because I can sing there without disturbing the cows across the road. Each time I strum, too, I work my arm muscles. One day before I am too old, I plan to get a simple ski-based exercise machine (because can work your arms and cardiovascular system yet remain kind to the knees).

Flipping through "The Breast Cancer Survivor's Guide," I was also reminded that some of these exercises are more manageable than ones in the books I have strewn around my exercise room. I decided to move it from its place of honor in the bookshelf with cancer books to the exercise room. There on the rug I use for floor-based stretches, I might see the book more often to take advantage of advice as years, knock on wood, pass.

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