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Therapy for Breast Cancer Recovery

Believe it or not, rehab can be just as important as the surgery or treatment itself.

Rehab addresses treatment side effects such as lymphedema, cording, decreased endurance and joint stiffness. For most patients, rehab typically begins the day after surgery.

Breast Cancer Rehabilitation Services

At UC San Diego you'll be able to recover quickly and safely thanks to a skilled, interdisciplinary rehabilitation team. Therapists work closely with oncologists and surgeons to ensure effective and targeted care. 


Exercise following surgery is essential to re-educating muscles, restoring movement and decreasing side effects. Our breast cancer rehab center is unique to San Diego in that it sees patients for exercise after their operation.


Immediately following surgery, your doctor will order occupational therapy (OT).

During the course of breast cancer rehab, physical therapy (PT) may be prescribed if balance and endurance issues arise.

More about OT and PT and their roles in breast cancer rehab:

Occupational Therapy (OT)

Helping patients achieve independence and restore range of motion and strength in the upper body are the primary goals of occupational therapy. Through hands-on interventions and therapeutic exercises, our occupational therapists help restore patients’ abilities to perform everyday activities like bathing, dressing and preparing meals. 

If you have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy (and lymph nodes were removed), your doctor will order OT the day after surgery (while you're still in the hospital). During this time you will receive training on an exercise program you will continue at home.

OT can help with:

  • Range of motion, strength
  • Axillary web syndrome (cording)
  • Joint stiffness
  • Scar tissue restriction
  • Lymphedema
  • Numbness in hands
  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Poor endurance
  • Restoring independence with daily activities, work and leisure
  • Educating patients about self-care management (e.g., skin care, infections, etc.)
Our occupational therapists are specially trained in the treatment of lymphedema.

Physical Therapy (PT)

If you experience problems with balance due to neuropathy, and/or back and neck pain at any point during breast cancer treatment, your doctor may order PT. 

Our physical therapists work with patients to improve their health, general fitness and daily function. Through a program thoughtfully personalized to the individual, our therapists help patients manage the pain and physical inabilities that can result from medical and surgical breast cancer treatment. 

PT can help with:

  • Pain
  • Poor endurance
  • Strength
  • Balance
  • Fatigue
  • Joint stiffness
  • Numbness in feet
  • Scar tissue restriction

Benefits of Breast Cancer Rehab

Breast cancer treatment can impact emotional and physical well-being, making it difficult for patients to return to normal living. 

Breast cancer rehab helps to:

  • Reduce the impact of treatment
  • Restore sensation
  • Provide emotional support
  • Improve the odds of successful treatment
  • Accelerate healing and ability for normal activities
  • Overcome symptoms such as pain, unsteadiness, fatigue, scar tissue restriction and numbness

Rehab also helps detect and treat two common long-term side effects of breast cancer surgery and radiation:


Any woman who has been treated for breast cancer is at risk for developing lymphedema, a condition that causes swelling in the body. The main treatment for lymphedema is complete or complex decongestive therapy (CDT).

Through exercise, manual lymph drainage and compression bandaging, CDT helps to:

  • Relieve discomfort
  • Increase lymph drainage
  • Decrease swelling
  • Lessen skin fibrosis
  • Improve condition of skin


Four self-care tips that can help reduce swelling:

  1. Use your affected arm as you normally would (dressing, eating, bathing).
  2. Talk with your doctor before starting an exercise routine.
  3. Do stretching exercises every day.
  4. Notify your doctor immediately if you notice swelling or heaviness in your arm.

Axillary Web Syndrome (cording)

After the lymph nodes are removed, the lymph and blood vessels in the underarm area may become inflamed. The vessels then harden, causing rigid scar tissue (cords) to form. Cording can extend from the top of the underarm to the wrist, and can appear days or even years after surgery.

Women who develop cording may experience:

  • Discomfort
  • Pain
  • Limited motion
  • Tightness in the armpit

Cording is a common condition and may go away on its own. Massages, stretching and manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) can help ease symptoms.

Recovering Successfully

Three ways to help ensure successful recovery after treatment:

  1. Always discuss your goals openly with your doctor.
    Each patient has different needs, and sharing these from the get-go will help improve your overall experience.
  2. Educate yourself.
    What kind of breast cancer do you have? What treatment(s) are available to you? It’s important that you ask a lot of questions so you know what your options are.
  3. Be proactive about your health.
    Health conditions such as lymphedema can occur several years after breast cancer treatment. Being conscious of changes in your body and having routine check-ups is essential in maintaining health.

Appointments & Referrals

Breast Cancer Rehab Locations

La Jolla

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