Working with Breast Cancer Patients

Polestar Educator Amy Dixon has an extensive fitness background, spanning well over 20 years and include numerous types of trainings. She also has experience working with breast cancer survivors, through classes and private sessions that help them rehabilitate and reintroduce positive movement experiences. Amy has shared with us her experiences and as well as useful insights on what to expect when dealing with cancer clients and how to make the sessions the best they can be.

23 years ago, I was working as a personal trainer. I also had issues with 2 herniated discs.  I began working with a Pilates teacher and was amazed to discover such positive results through this practice to alleviate my pain.  Because of this, I was inspired to train to become a Pilates instructor. After a few years, I found Polestar and completed the Transition program. It was after Polestar that I was drawn to work with ailing clients, using Polestar’s principles. Throughout my career, I have seen the full range of symptoms breast cancer sufferers experience. These symptoms include:

  • Decreased shoulder range of motion and strength
  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Poor posture
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Increased risk of premature osteoporosis
  • Increased risk of lymphedema and sarcopenia
  • Impaired ability to perform daily tasks

These issues are compounded with emotional stress and frame of mind, which can irritate the symptoms further. Post-surgery breast cancer patients tend to limit their movement to the point that they set back their recovery. Many also develop guarding habits, such as raising the arm on the affected side to protect against being touched or jostled, which can cause further mobility problems in the shoulder area. This is where Pilates can retrain some of those detrimental habits as it is critical to avoid these habits from developing further in order to expedite recovery. It is more difficult to restore shoulder mobility in patients who stay guarded in a sling for six to eight weeks, for example.

Clients with a positive outlook and a willingness to progress tend to have better results with movement.  It can be scary for the client to move, so much encouragement and compassion is needed! Private sessions are ideal for this type of client in order for them to feel more comfortable and to participate without feeling self-conscious.

To reintroduce patients into everyday movement, it’s best to start with low-intensity Pilates routines that focus on the upper body.  During cancer rehabilitation, the concepts of breathing, pelvic and lumbar spine alignment, rib cage placement, shoulder mobility and stability, and head and neck alignment can be applied to any Pilates movement. Bringing awareness to posture can be the first step in improving daily activities. Putting the body in a position where it moves and reacts more efficiently can take away unwanted stress and strain. Developing proper movement patterns will also allow the body to heal in a way that reduces the likelihood of compensatory injuries.

When dealing with cancer patients, you must also be aware of their progress as well as keep close communication with their physical therapist. It is important to know the types of issues they are dealing with, and by keeping good communication with their PT, you can ensure the proper contraindications are noted before creating a program for these clients. Watch for fatigue, swelling, limited range of motion, and pain while working with these clients.

Ultimately, our Pilates practice can greatly improve the mobility, range and posture of survivors. Creating a positive movement experience is key.

For more information on Amy and her studio, click here. Amy will be teaching a Comprehensive Pilates series in early 2018.

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