Breast cancer recovery is a delicate time. As your body heals, you will face physical and emotional challenges. Apart from getting their energy and strength back, women battling and recovering from breast cancer also need to regain their self-confidence.
Exercise, particularly Pilates, can aid in this part of your journey. Physical activities can be hard enough for healthy people, let alone those living and recovering from cancer. That’s why Joseph Pilates invented this form of exercise specifically to help rehabilitate women after mastectomies. As we commemorate Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we are also seeing more discussions about the benefits of Pilates.
Why Pilates For Breast Cancer?
Pilates is a gentle form of exercise that engages the body, mind, and spirit. Its various routines help develop muscle strength and flexibility while promoting circulatory, respiratory, and lymphatic function. They help you relax and improve your coordination and balance. You can do Pilates wherever you are, even while seated. It can also be done throughout your life, not just when you are recovering from cancer. For these reasons, this approach to exercise is excellent for healing breast cancer survivors.
Joseph Pilates conceptualized the Pilates method to increase flexibility, strengthen muscles, and improve overall health and wellbeing. It is a combination of martial arts, yoga, and gymnastics. After emigrating from Germany following World War I, Joseph taught his technique as “Contrology,” a mixture of Western and Eastern techniques and philosophies, to a small group of students and teachers in the U.S. In the 1950s, he started using his techniques to rehabilitate dancers at his clinic in New York City.
One of his first protégés was Eve Gentry, whom he helped recover after a radical mastectomy. All of her chest muscles, breast tissue, and lymph nodes had been removed during the surgery, so it was remarkable that Eve regained full control of her torso and arm. It was a feat made possible through Pilates. Doctors could not believe the success she obtained from the exercise that it prompted more studies into the benefits of Pilates for breast cancer recovery.
The Importance Of An Active Lifestyle
The American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Survivors recommend that cancer survivors should avoid inactivity and return as soon as possible to normal activities after surgery.
The same advice is given for patients undergoing radiation and adjuvant treatment (hormone therapy, chemotherapy, and /or targeted therapy). The guidelines emphasize that strength training and physical activities be done at least twice a week or at least 150 minutes of exercise weekly.
For breast cancer survivors, physical activities offer additional benefits:
- Improves physical condition and movement
- Decreases fatigue
- Eases depression
- Maintains bone health
- Increases sexuality
- Improves body image
- Boosts positive mood
Fighting breast cancer can take its toll on your body, but Pilates provides a safe and gentle outlet for those who want to start regaining their energy.
What Are The Benefits Of Pilates?
Many people have discovered the excellent benefits of Pilates. Beth Mast, a Pilates practitioner and occupational therapist, used the method to recover from breast cancer and is now using it on her journey through living with metastatic cancer. Pilates is a physical activity that patients can tolerate even after going through chemotherapy and becoming increasingly weak. Here’s how you can benefit from this practice.
Start Recovery Exercises Slowly
Limited range of motion, fatigue, and even fear of moving sore areas are common reasons women shy away from exercise. However, the right kind of workout guided by trained professionals can significantly bring back one’s energy levels and improve wellbeing.
One of the best things about physical activity is that it can be revitalizing and relaxing at the same time. After fighting cancer, women who are still experiencing stress and fatigue can find comfort in the practice. In addition, regaining range of motion and strength in the shoulders, chest, arms, and back will help women care for herself and resume her normal life. Having that independence will go a long way toward a sense of emotional empowerment.
Move Lymph With Workout
Inactivity can cause lymph buildup that may result in lymphedema, one of the significant risks of breast cancer surgery. Stretching your muscles through regular exercise will also move your lymph fluids, preventing its buildup.
Women recovering from breast cancer may feel conscious and extra protective of their chest area. It may even be difficult to stand up or do simple movements. At the early stages, a routine program for breast cancer recovery will develop slowly. Simple exercises, such as small stretches and deep breathing, will warm up the body without causing undue stress.
It may take some time before you can increase the motion in your chest, arm, and shoulder. For some women, this may even feel new and uncomfortable. These areas may be sore and stiff, but as you progress slowly, you will steadily have more control of your body and gain confidence in the exercise.
Common Kinds Of Pilates Exercises
- Deep Breathing – This is a fundamental part of Pilates and one that tops the list of exercises for women in recovery. It is stress-reducing, enlivening, and it works the core muscles. Examples of Pilates deep breathing exercises are lateral and diaphragmatic breathing.
- Maintaining Good Posture – Small bridge or pelvic clock exercises can work the back and abs without challenging the arms and chest too much. These help support posture and reinforce the abdominal muscles, which translates to more stability and freedom in everyday movement.
- Light Stretches – Good alignment is a Pilates prerequisite for everything. Doing some light stretches is the perfect way to gain this, especially at the beginning of breast cancer recovery. Pulling the shoulder blades together and pushing them apart is done in most routines, and can help women regain full range of motions through the arm and chest.
Pilates allows women to pay attention to what they can do rather than focus on the damaged or weak areas of their body. The practice will teach you to appreciate all the movement your body is currently capable of, no matter how limited or small at first.
- Kushi LH, Doyle C, McCullough M, et al. American Cancer Society guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2012;62(1);30–67. doi: 10.3322/caac.20140.
- Eyigor S, Karapolat H, Yesil H, Uslu R, Durmaz B. Effects of Pilates exercises on functional capacity, flexibility, fatigue, depression, and quality of life in female breast cancer patients: A randomized controlled study. European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine. 2010;46(4):481-87.
- Stan DL, Rausch SM, Sundt K, et al. Pilates for breast cancer survivors. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. 2012;16(2):131-41. doi: 10.1188/12. CJON.131-141.
- Keays KS, Harris SR, Lucyshyn JM, MacIntyre DL. Effects of Pilates exercises on shoulder range of motion, pain, mood, and upper-extremity function in women living with breast cancer: A pilot study. Physical Therapy. 2008;88(4):494-510. doi: 10.2522/ptj.20070099.