By Lucy Schultze
Health and Research News

In the early days after a breast cancer diagnosis, the focus is on survival.

But there comes a time when a woman is ready to reclaim the way she looked and felt before a mastectomy. And that’s when she can benefit from the assistance of certified mastectomy fitters and physical therapists.

These medical professionals at Methodist Rehab help women improve their self image and return to the activities they love.

“Women can recover their pre-mastectomy shape better than they might imagine,” said Helen Jeffries Lamb, a certified fitter of breast prostheses with Methodist Orthotics & Prosthetics in Flowood. “I tell them, ‘I can’t get you back the way you were — but I can get you so close.’”

“A lot of women come in and are very depressed and struggling with their self-image,” Lamb adds. But hearing that modern breast prostheses are typically made from silicone — just like the breast implants women pay thousands for — often helps change their perspective, she said.

The process of getting professionally fitted for a breast prosthesis starts with hearing a woman’s story and understanding where she is in the treatment process, Lamb said. The fitter then performs measurements and, in the case of double-mastectomy patients, finds out which cup size the woman would like to have.

“It’s important to work with someone who cares and who has taken the time to make sure the prosthesis fits just right before you walk out the door,” said Trisha Greer, who recently completed her training as a mastectomy fitter in the Hattiesburg office of Methodist Orthotics & Prosthetics.

“Women should know that life does not end once this happens to you,” Greer said. “And generally, if you have a very good fit, no one can even tell you’re wearing a prosthesis.”

Hope is there, too, when it comes to recovering one’s strength, posture and range of motion after such a dramatic surgery as a mastectomy.

But many breast-cancer survivors and even their physicians aren’t aware of the post-surgery benefits that specialized physical therapy can provide, said Susan Geiger, a physical therapist who manages growth and development for outpatient services at Methodist Outpatient Rehabilitation in Flowood.

“We realized a few years ago that one area of need not being met was in working with ladies after they’d had mastectomies,” Geiger said. “Physical therapy can be a great benefit — but if a physician doesn’t think about it, it’s not likely the patient would either.”

Post-mastectomy physical therapy begins with exercises to restore a patient’s basic range of motion and strength, not only in the shoulder, but also in the neck, elbow and hand, Geiger said.

“Just like if you’d had orthopedic surgery, if you’re in a lot of pain and fearful of moving it, you won’t use that extremity,” she said. “That’s why we try to connect with patients as early as we can after surgery, so that they don’t develop those restrictions in their strength and movement.”

Geiger said other benefits of working with a physical therapist after mastectomy include:
— Preventing poor posture and the respiratory problems it can bring, particularly among older patients.
— Identifying an onset of lymphedema and treating it through massage, wrapping techniques and, if needed, a referral for custom-fitted compression garments to control swelling.
— Working with scar tissue to deal with sensitivity, pain and any tightness that can hinder mobility.

Too often, Geiger said, the medical community relies upon survivor-to-patient support groups to pass along tips about the exercises that can help breast-cancer survivors preserve their strength and movement after mastectomy.

“Ideally, after a person has had surgery, they should see a therapist even for a one-time assessment,” she said. “The therapist can see what any potential problems are or if a patient is right on track. Either way, that person will have a resource to go back to if they need help along the road of recovery.”

Many women aren’t aware of all the services that are available for mastectomy patients. But when various medical professionals work together, breast cancer survivors reap the benefits.

“It’s all about getting the patient back to where they were before cancer disrupted their lives,” Geiger said. “A professionally-fitted prosthesis can help a woman look natural and feel more confident and secure. And physical therapy can give her the ability to return to her usual activities.”

For information about therapeutic services available for breast cancer survivors, call Methodist Outpatient Rehabilitation at 601-936-8888. For information about breast prostheses fittings at Methodist Orthotics & Prosthetics clinics in Flowood, Meridian and Hattiesburg, call 1-866-306-9933.