Physical Therapy for Cancer Rehabilitation

Many cancer patients have not heard of physical therapy as an option to help them recover during and after their cancer treatment. Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery can cause many unwanted side effects.

Side effects can include the following:

Musculoskeletal pain


General deconditioning

Loss of motion or mobility

Decreased strength

Lymphedema or swelling

Scar adhesions

Low back pain

Shoulder and/or neck pain after breast cancer treatment

Balance problems

Survivors may think these symptoms are part of their “new normal” after cancer treatment, but it is not acceptable to live with these symptoms. Indy Women PT wants to help survivors return to their previous level of activities and lead a full life without restrictions.

After Breast Cancer Surgery

Breast Cancer is the most common malignancy in women. The effects of surgery, chemo and radiation can leave you feeling fatigued, weak and in pain. It is not uncommon for some patients to experience discomfort or pain along the surgical site, the shoulder itself or any surrounding muscles after surgery. These symptoms can be present weeks or even months after your procedure. This can lead to shoulder pain, neck pain, further loss of motion and decreased abdominal strength.

Specific symptoms after breast cancer surgery may include the following:

A feeling of something pulling or “tearing” along the surgical scar area when using the arm

Swelling in the arm or body in which articles of clothing may feel tighter on the affected side versus the other

Pain or discomfort along the scar when wearing certain clothing such as a bra, camisole, etc.

Persistent weakness in the arm, shoulder or abdomen/core region especially after having a latissimus or rectus abdominus flap procedure

Upper or lower back pain

Pain in the shoulder when performing overhead activities

Ovarian, uterine, and colon/rectal cancer treatments

Ovarian, uterine, and colon/rectal cancer treatments can also have the same unwanted general side effects. Due to the location and treatment of these types of cancers. 

More specific side effects can include:

Bowel/bladder incontinence

Vaginal narrowing or dryness which can lead to painful intercourse

Nerve damage in the spine or pelvis. Symptoms can include pain, numbness, tingling, weakness or hypersensitivity in the hips, groin or legs

Benefits of Physical Therapy

Improved endurance and cardiovascular conditioning

Increased muscular strength

Improved joint range of motion

Assist with surgical recovery

Manage lymphedema

Improve balance and coordination

Improve quality of life

Lessened fatigue

Decreased pain


Lymphedema can be a side effect of cancer treatment due to a disruption in the lymphatic system. It can be caused by the tumor or cancer itself, or a result of surgery and/or radiation. 

Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system’s job is to transport toxins or waste products to be broken down and eliminated from the body. When the lymph vessels are unable to transport this fluid, it accumulates, resulting in chronic swelling. Lymphedema as a result of cancer treatments is called secondary lymphedema.

Primary Lymphedema

Some people can have lymphedema without any history of cancer. This is called primary lymphedema. This can begin at a very young age, or develop later in life for no apparent reason. This is caused more from a malformation of the lymphatic system itself and not damage from cancer treatments. It is unknown what exactly causes primary lymphedema, but it can sometimes be linked with obesity, or some genetic history.

Lymphedema Symptoms
  • Swelling in the arms, legs, hands, fingers, upper back, chest or face
  • Swelling can sometimes leave an indentation, as when your finger pushes into the skin and leaves a mark
  • Clothes or jewelry such as a ring may feel tight
  • The arm or leg may feel “heavy”
  • Tightness, decreased motion or flexibility in the affected area
  • If there is an infection the skin may appear red or blotchy, warm to the touch, painful and you may have a fever. If this happens you will want to call your doctor immediately.

At this time we are only accepting patients with lymphedema as a maintenance type program. If you are wanting to have monthly or so checkups which include manual lymph drainage massage, optional bandaging, regular arm or leg measurements recorded and guidance with exercises or compression garments advice we can help.

Lymphedema Treatments:
Manual lymph drainage

This is a light massage that helps move the lymphatic fluid toward functioning lymph nodes, to help with eliminating the excess fluid which is causing the swelling


This involves the affected arm or leg to be wrapped in a layer of bandages to promote decrease in the swelling. This will need to stay on continuous even at night to be the most effective. We can teach family members how to bandage to give you a little more freedom in between therapy sessions

Compression Garment

Once the swelling is down and unable to reduce any further, a compression garment for the arm or leg will need to be ordered to fit your particular size. If a garment appears to be a challenge to take on and off, there are other options that can work just as well.


Appropriate exercise can help the muscular system to move the lymphatic fluid away from the affected arm or leg. It is recommended to always wear your sleeve or hose when working out to prevent swelling. Although there is no specific research that states a weight limit, general precaution is given in regards to lifting too much weight or performing aggressive sports

Since unfortunately there is no cure for lymphedema, the goal of therapy will be to reduce the swelling and maintain the reduction. Indy Women PT can treat lymphedema and also give you the tools and education needed to help manage it on your own once physical therapy is done.

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Client Love

“No one recommended physical therapy after my breast cancer treatments. I didn’t want to bother my doctor about the pain along my mastectomy scar and in my shoulder. After I was finally sent to therapy, I regained motion in my shoulder and my pain improved enough so I could return to playing golf!”

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(317) 689-0073

1355 West 96th St, Indianapolis, IN 46260