Daily exercise is good for you in many ways. Exercise improves your mood, keeps your muscles in shape and helps maintain your weight. During treatment for breast cancer, it may be important to do arm exercises to keep the treatment area moving. This will help with positioning for the treatment and preventing stiffness down the road. It is recommended that you perform these exercises twice per day.

Getting Started — General Guidelines

  • You will feel some tightness in your chest and underarm after surgery. This is normal and the tightness will decrease as you continue your exercise program.
  • Many women have a burning, tingling, numbness, or soreness on the back of the arm and/or chest wall. This is because the surgery irritated some of your nerve endings. Although the sensations may increase a few weeks after surgery, continue to do the exercises unless you notice unusual swelling or tenderness. (Notify your doctor if this occurs.) Sometimes rubbing or stroking the area with your hand or a soft cloth can help “desensitize” the area.
  • It may be helpful to do exercises after a warm shower when muscles are warm and relaxed.
  • Wear comfortable, loose clothing when doing the exercises.
  • Do the exercises until you feel a slow stretch. Hold each stretch at the end of the motion for a count of five. It is normal to feel some pulling as you stretch the skin and muscles that have been shortened because of the surgery. Do not do bouncing or jerky-type movements when doing any of the exercises. You should not feel pain as you do the exercises, only gentle stretching.
  • Do 5 to 7 repetitions of each exercise. Try to do each exercise correctly. If you have difficulty with the exercises, contact your doctor. You may need to be referred to a physical or occupational therapist.
  • Exercises should be done twice a day until you regain normal flexibility and strength.
  • Be sure to take deep breaths, in and out, as you perform each exercise.
  • The exercises are designed so that you begin them lying down, move to sitting, and then finish standing.

Exercises in Lying Position

These exercises should be performed on a bed or the floor while lying on your back with your knees and hips bent, feet flat.

Wand exercise
This exercise helps increase the forward motion of the shoulders. You will need a broom handle, yardstick, or other similar object to perform this exercise.

  • Hold the wand in both hands with palms facing up.
  • Lift the wand up over your head (as far as you can) using your unaffected arm to help lift the wand, until you feel a stretch in your affected arm.
  • Hold for five seconds.
  • Lower arms and repeat 5 to 7 times.

Elbow winging
This exercise helps increase the mobility of the front of your chest and shoulder. It may take several weeks of regular exercise before your elbows will get close to the bed (or floor).

  • Clasp your hands behind your neck with your elbows pointing toward the ceiling. • Move your elbows apart and down toward the bed (or floor).
  • Repeat 5 to 7 times.

Exercises in Sitting Position

Shoulder blade stretch
This exercise helps increase the mobility of the shoulder blades.

  • Sit in a chair very close to a table with your back against the chair back.
  • Place the unaffected arm on the table with your elbow bent and palm down. Do not move this arm during the exercise.
  • Place the affected arm on the table, palm down with your elbow straight.
  • Without moving your trunk, slide the affected arm toward the opposite side of the table. You should feel your shoulder blade move as you do this.
  • Relax your arm and repeat 5 to 7 times.

Shoulder blade squeeze
This exercise also helps increase the mobility of the shoulder blade.

  • Facing straight ahead, sit in a chair in front of a mirror without resting on the back of the chair.
  • Arms should be at your sides with elbows bent.
  • Squeeze shoulder blades together, bringing your elbows behind you. Keep your shoulders level as you do this exercise. Do not lift your shoulders up toward your ears.
  • Return to the starting position and repeat 5 to 7 times.

Side bending
This exercise helps increase the mobility of the trunk/body.

  • Clasp your hands together in front of you and lift your arms slowly over your head, straightening your arms.
  • When your arms are over your head, bend your trunk to the right while bending at the waist and keeping your arms overhead.
  • Return to the starting position and bend to the left. • Repeat 5 to 7 times.

Exercises in Standing Position

Chest wall stretch
This exercise helps stretch the chest wall.

  • Stand facing a corner with toes approximately 8 to 10 inches from the corner.
  • Bend your elbows and place forearms on the wall, one on each side of the corner. Your elbows should be as close to shoulder height as possible.
  • Keep your arms and feet in position and move your chest toward the corner. You will feel a stretch across your chest and shoulders.
  • Return to starting position and repeat 5 to 7 times.

Shoulder stretch
This exercise helps increase the mobility in the shoulder.

  • Stand facing the wall with your toes approx- imately 8 to 10 inches from the wall.
  • Place your hands on the wall. Use your fingers to “climb the wall,” reaching as high as you can until you feel a stretch.
  • Return to starting position and repeat 5 to 7 times.


Things to Keep in Mind

Begin exercising slowly and progress as you are able. Stop exercising and notify your doctor if you: • Get weaker, start losing your balance, or start falling

  • Have pain that gets worse
  • Have new heaviness in your arm
  • Have unusual swelling, or swelling gets worse
  • Have headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, new numbness, or tingling in arms or chest

It is important to exercise to keep muscles working as well as possible, but it is also important to be safe. Talk with your doctor about realistic exercises for your condition, and then set goals for increasing your physical activity level.

This information was developed with assistance from the Oncology Section of the American Physical Therapy Association. Exercise instructions and graphics developed by the American Cancer Society.