Perceptions of upper-body problems during recovery from breast cancer treatment


Despite improved recognition recently, restrictions in upper-body movement continue to cause impairment and distress for many women long after breast cancer treatment. The purpose of this research is to investigate this issue through the perceptions of breast cancer survivors in the context of their everyday lives. Twenty-four women recruited from a private breast clinic in south-eastern Queensland, Australia, participated in a qualitative study. Discussion groups comprised women treated for breast cancer within the previous 18 months. Discussions centred on experiences of physical difficulties, follow-up support, arm lymphoedema and exercise therapy during the women’s recoveries. Returning to normal activities for women after breast surgery was felt to take longer than either the women’s or their physicians’ expectations. Many women reported difficulties in upper-body tasks, which worsened simple everyday responsibilities. The physical impact leads to psychological strain, as the women are constantly reminded of their illness and the possibility they may never return to their full capacity. These upper-body difficulties may include discomfort while driving and sleeping, posture disturbances, reduced employability in physical work, and decreased ability to do housework and gardening. Having lymphoedema or the threat of developing it was very distressing for most women. The potential preventive role of physiotherapy-led exercises to prevent further decline and improve function was strongly emphasised during these discussions. Clinicians need to recognise that it is very common for women with breast cancer to experience upper-body morbidity long after their treatment, and consequently every effort to enhance recovery and avoid further deterioration in function is required.

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This research was funded by the Centre for Health Research—Public Health, Queensland University of Technology, and the National Network of Women in Super Scholarship through the National Breast Cancer Foundation (Australia).

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Correspondence to Louisa G. Collins.

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Collins, L.G., Nash, R., Round, T. et al. Perceptions of upper-body problems during recovery from breast cancer treatment. Support Care Cancer 12, 106–113 (2004).

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  • Breast cancer
  • Rehabilitation
  • Upper-body morbidity
  • Lymphoedema