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The Role of Breathing in Radiation, Chemotherapy and Post Breast Cancer Surgeries

by Jessica Finley, DPT, OCS

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Breathing is an involuntary action the body performs to keep us alive. During ongoing breast cancer treatments, restoring and performing normal breathing patterns can have positive effects. In all stages of breast cancer treatment, it's important to focus on your breath to ensure proper lung and rib expansion, good chest and abdominal skin mobility, proper coordination of diaphragm contraction and good lymphatic circulation. Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery can affect normal breathing patterns differently, which is why it's crucial to understand the impact of these treatments on breathing.


Without a doubt, there are numerous effects that chemotherapy has on the body. Some include feeling short of breath, anxiety, sleep disturbance, fatigue and decrease in quality of life. Restoring normal breathing patterns can improve the gas exchange in our lungs (ability to get oxygen to the rest of our body), decreasing tension in neck/chest and improving energy. Various breathing techniques have been studied to “quiet the mind,” which can be performed before, during or after chemotherapy treatments that can significantly decrease anxiety, sleep disturbance and improve mental quality of life.


Radiation is not only tough on the skin but also to the tissues underneath the breast, ribs, lungs, back and even the heart. When performed properly, deep diaphragmatic breaths allow for abdominal, rib and chest expansion. This can help maintain skin, lung and other tissue elasticity. It's important to note that there are changes to the tissues after radiation treatment is complete, so keeping up with your breathing exercises is key and will optimize results.


Many breast cancer surgeries and reconstruction involve extensive involvement to the chest and abdominal region. This can result in a forward, guarded posture. Diaphragmatic breathing will help not only improve skin mobility in the front of your chest, but also help decrease muscle guarding and improve lymphatic flow/drainage. Ease into breathing techniques following surgery and allow your body to heal before starting deeper breath work.


Breathing plays a critical role in breast cancer rehab. Working on your breathing pattern will have positive emotional and physical benefits. Plus, it's a free exercise - no weights or bands required! Please don't hesitate to contact us with questions or to schedule an appointment.


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