Essential Exercises for Breast Cancer Survivors

These exercises will improve shoulder range of motion after surgery.

If you’ve had breast cancer, you’ve most likely had a surgery as part of your treatment. Whether it was a biopsy, lumpectomy, mastectomy, or reconstructive surgery, it’s possible that movement at the shoulder joint will be impacted.

When your range of motion is limited, it can have a tremendous impact on simple movements that are necessary for an easy everyday life. Muscle adhesions, tightness, or stiffness at the shoulder joint can make tasks like brushing your hair or scratching your lower back difficult and even painful. In extreme cases, breast cancer survivors end up with frozen shoulder; a condition where the joint has lost a vast amount of range of motion due to immobility.

By doing the right exercises and stretching, you can get your shoulder back to a normal range of motion. Exercise becomes even more important if you’ve had any kind of lymph node removal. It can help to prevent swelling of the arm, chest, back, or hands; a condition known as lymphedema. Knowing when and how to safely get back into exercise can be frustrating. Following a proper progression can make a world of difference to the recovery process.

All of the below exercises can be done with either a towel rolled up or a broomstick. Aim for 5 to 10 repetitions of each. You should always get your doctor’s approval before trying any of the following exercises.

Pendulum swing

This is a great exercise to help with swelling from lymphatic fluid that may have build up. Take a split stance with your feet as you brace yourself with the unaffected arm; use your knee or a table to lean on. Let the affected arm dangle towards the floor circling it to the right then left.


Side arm lift

This will help with lateral movement of the arm. Hold the towel, one hand at each end, down in front of your body. Carefully raise the affected arm out to the side as the unaffected arm moves across your body. If you are unable to lift to shoulder height or higher use a broomstick instead. By doing this your unaffected arm can assist with the stretch.



This addresses both internal and external rotation. Hold one end of the towel with your right arm and place it behind your head. Reach behind your back for the other end of the towel. Gently pull the towel up and down behind your back. Switch arms and repeat.



This is a good stretch to improve your overhead reach. Lie down on your back with your knees bent. Hold each end of the towel straight up above your chest keeping your arms straight. Lower the towel back towards your head stopping as soon as you feel discomfort.


Try a self assessment of each of the five patterns of movement below to identify any limitations you may have with movement in the affected arm (the side where you had surgery). The video below will explain everything in more detail. If flexibility in that arm is less than that of the unaffected arm you’ll want to hold off on strength training. At this point, there is no advantage to resistance training because you’ll be strengthening your muscles in limited, abnormal movement pattern, hence brushing your hair won’t be any easier. Each exercise starts with the unaffected side and use that to benchmark your normal range of motion. Then repeat with the affected side and note any differences.

Shoulder flexion

Stand up against a wall with your shoulders firmly pressed up against it. Raise the unaffected arm up in front and then over head. Repeat with the affected arm. Stop once your shoulders come off the wall.  It should feel uncomfortably tight, but not painful.

Shoulder internal rotation

Remain standing with your back up against the wall. Bring your elbows up level with your shoulders; your forearms should be perpendicular to the wall. Rotate the unaffected arm down towards the floor and then do the same with the affected arm. Note that this exercise neither hand will touch the wall; our bodies aren’t designed to move that way.

Shoulder external rotation

Set yourself up as you did with the internal rotation exercise. This time move your hands up and back towards your head. Make sure the shoulders remain on the wall; repeat with the affected side and note the difference.

Shoulder abduction

Start again with your back against the wall. Rest your arms down by your sides, then slowly lift them out to the side. Stop once you feel the shoulders come off of the wall.

Shoulder extension

Stand up straight resting your arms down by your sides. Keeping the shoulder blades down slowly raise your arms behind you keeping them straight.

If your range of motion in the affected arm matches that of the unaffected arm then you may ready to ease back into a full body strength training program.