Cancer rehabilitation can help
patients before and after treatment,
but it’s still not widely used.
BY CAMERON WALKER
In July 2010, 52-year-old Julie Barthels, a clinical director of a rape crisis center, woke up with a sharp pain in her right breast. When
the pain persisted for more than a week,
Barthels, who lives in Machesney Park,
Illinois, had a mammogram that revealed
a mass in her breast of more than 2 centimeters. After a lumpectomy, Barthels was
diagnosed with stage IIA breast cancer.
At the end of September, Barthels had
additional surgery to remove her right breast
and surrounding chest muscles and lymph
nodes. She started chemotherapy a month
later, and soon afterward noticed swelling on her right side and in her upper arm.
Eventually, she couldn’t stretch her arm
over her head. Barthels had developed a
condition called lymphedema, swelling that
occurs when lymph fluid builds up in the
body’s tissues, typically in the legs or arms.
Lymphedema is a common complication following surgery to remove lymph nodes.
Barthels’ primary care physician referred
her for occupational therapy. Barthels, who
had recently undergone rehabilitation for
injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident,
was no stranger to this type of therapy. In
January 2011, she started meeting with an
occupational therapist two to three times a
week. The therapist used a special type of
massage to decrease lymphedema swelling
by moving lymph toward areas of the body
where it can drain more easily. Over the
course of four months, the therapist taught
Barthels how to perform self-massage and
advised her to use a compression shirt to
manage her condition.
Barthels, now 61, says the exercises and
techniques she learned helped her maintain
her mobility even as she continued weekly
chemotherapy treatments. “I have so much
movement and flexibility that I would
not have if I hadn’t learned to take care of
myself,” she says.
A Missing Piece
Occupational and physical therapy are
components of care that fall under the
wide umbrella of cancer rehabilitation,