Wednesday, July 28th, 2021

New therapy empowers breast cancer survivors

Posted: Friday, August 28, 2020

When a person is diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s the beginning of a journey. And while each individual’s journey is unique to them, exercise can provide significant benefits in recovery and wellness regardless of the type of breast cancer involved.

In a collaborative effort with the Parkview Cancer Institute’s Breast Care Team, Parkview Huntington Hospital’s (PHH) Holly D. Sale Rehab and Wellness Center is now offering breast cancer survivors an exercise program specifically designed to alleviate some side effects of cancer treatment. Strength After Breast Cancer, or Strength ABC, is a targeted effort to counteract or prevent lymphedema, an uncomfortable and debilitating condition experienced by many survivors.

“Breast cancer-related lymphedema after surgery and radiation can be devastating for our patients,” said Linda Han, MD, Parkview Cancer Institute. “This Strength ABC program not only addresses early treatment that can reverse lymphedema, but more importantly, provides simple and effective interventions to prevent this potential complication from ever occurring. We are fortunate to have a great prevention program led by our certified lymphedema specialists that can significantly improve the lives of our cancer patients.”

Dr. Han has worked with Lynn Merrill, certified lymphedema specialist at PHH, and Carol Molitor, certified lymphedema specialist at Parkview Regional Medical Center, to help implement the program, and will refer her patients for participation. Both experienced physical therapists are already very familiar with the frustrations of lymphedema patients, and have received additional certification to provide this program.

“It’s very exciting to be able to offer Strength ABC here in Huntington,” said Merrill, who’s been providing expert guidance for physical therapy patients at PHH for nine years, and lymphedema care for four years. “We’ve designed it to equip patients with a toolkit of exercises they can adapt to their own needs. This is going to help a lot of people take charge of their well-being and feel better about themselves.”

According to Merrill, 35 to 58 percent of breast cancer survivors develop arm or shoulder issues as a result of surgery to remove cancerous tissue and lymph nodes, or from radiation treatments. These issues include stiffness of the shoulder, loss of strength, rotator cuff problems, difficulty reaching overhead and behind the back, and lymphedema, which involves swelling, pain and discomfort of the hand, arm, breast or trunk. Strength ABC can help prevent and overcome these frustrating conditions, which affect both women and men.

“Men can get breast cancer, too,” Merrill noted. “It’s less common, but it can still profoundly affect their lives. We want them to know this program isn’t just for women who’ve had breast cancer.”

Strength ABC empowers breast cancer survivors to reduce their risk of developing lymphedema, reduce worsening of lymphedema, and improve function of the arm. The goal is early intervention, because the earlier lymphedema is addressed, the better the outcome.

“Lymphedema patients’ lives are complicated by having to apply and reapply compression wraps to keep fluid from accumulating in the affected area,” said Merrill. “Daily activities are made so much harder by stiffness, pain, and loss of strength and range of motion. Even for people who are determined not to let these obstacles stop them, their quality of life is impacted. This program can make such a difference for them.”

The Strength ABC program is straightforward. In Huntington, the patient makes an appointment for a physical therapy evaluation with Merrill. After the evaluation is completed, Merrill and the patient have an educational session on lymphedema: what it is, signs and symptoms, how it’s prevented, and how it’s treated. Then the patient begins learning the exercises, working one-on-one with Merrill, typically in four sessions.

The sessions are spaced one to two weeks apart so patients can go home and try the customized exercises. Each week involves learning new exercises and how to advance them until the full progressive weightlifting program is covered. Once patients are comfortable with the home program, they graduate and continue the exercises on their own. If at any time they have difficulty or concerns, they can return to physical therapy for additional assistance.

“Learning proper form and weight progression for each exercise gives patients the flexibility to choose how they’d like to work out,” said Merrill. “They can keep exercising at home with hand weights or, if they prefer going to a gym or fitness club, they can use free weights or weight machines in that type of setting.”

Patients who have gone through the Strength ABC program experience these benefits: reduced onset or reduced worsening of lymphedema, reduced arm dysfunction, improved strength and energy, reduced body fat, improved body image and general reduction in side effects of cancer treatment. An added benefit is that exercise is associated with a reduced recurrence of cancer.

“A cancer diagnosis, treatment and side effects can really turn people’s lives upside down,” said Juli Johnson, president of PHH. “We wanted to offer this follow-up care locally so patients don’t have to travel far for the therapy sessions and so they have a resource close by as they work on regaining strength and a sense of well-being. Lynn will take great care of them.”

Any breast cancer survivor – with or without lymphedema – is eligible for the Strength ABC program, regardless of whether their treatment occurred recently or years ago. Patients can self-refer; no physician referral is needed.

Strength ABC is covered by insurance, depending on the carrier, under the same rules as physical therapy treatment. Patients pay co-pays or deductibles according to their insurance plans. Due to COVID-19 precautions, patients should remember to wear a mask during their appointments. To schedule an evaluation, or for more information on the program, call the PHH rehab team at (260) 355-3240.