Occupational Therapy and Breast Cancer Survivorship

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and nearly 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer sometime over the course of their life. Breast cancer treatment, though essential for maintaining general physical health, can produce numerous side effects that prevent or inhibit women from engaging in typical roles and performing everyday activities. Activities that are often taken for granted, like getting dressed, preparing meals, and getting the kids off to school in the morning, can become difficult due to post-surgical changes in mobility, muscle strength and sensation. Performing everyday activities may be further complicated by lymphedema, a chronic swelling condition associated with the surgical removal of lymph nodes and one that can last for years into survivorship. In addition to the physical complications associated with breast cancer, many women experience increased levels of anxiety and depression that affect their ability to attend to daily routines associated with work, taking care of their families, and performing self-care.

Occupational therapy is a critical component to breast cancer treatment and survivorship. Occupational therapy services support women with breast cancer to improve and regain the abilities to perform their daily routines; in addition, these services can be supportive to women dealing with chronic issues (i.e., lymphedema) as they adapt and acquire new habits associated with disease self-management.

Occupational therapists can help women with breast cancer and breast cancer survivors :

  1. Perform daily activities more easily through the use of assistive technology and modification techniques
  2. Manage lymphedema through the use of exercises, massage, and compression garments
  3. Manage energy through the use of energy conservation techniques, personalized routines around sleep, and the use of sleep hygiene strategies
  4. Manage stress and pain through relaxation techniques

Most medical centers and major cancer centers like MD Andersen have occupational therapy practitioners on staff. Referrals for occupational therapy services can be obtained through physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician’s assistants (depending on state licensure). Women with breast cancer may receive occupational therapy services soon post-surgery or later during survivorship. If you or a women you know has experienced breast cancer, review this screening checklist to see if occupational therapy services might support recovery.

For more information about how occupational therapists support women with breast cancer, check out this article

and these resources from the American Occupational Therapy Association:



About Dr. Susan Cahill

Dr. Susan Cahill is a former Associate Professor and Director of the MSOT Program at Lewis University. She is a Fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and a member of the AOTA Commission on Practice. Visit http://www.lewisu.edu/academics/msoccuptherapy to learn more.

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