Training “Smart” After Breast Surgery

Training “Smart” After Breast Surgery


At this point, I want to make a few important points before you start hefting any dumbbells. First, every PAL participant who had lymphedema wore compression sleeves on her arms and gauntlets on her hands for each exercise session. If you have had lymph nodes removed and/or radiation to one or both armpit areas, you need to know what these are. The sleeve covers your arm from shoulder to wrist, and the gauntlet is like a glove without fingers; both gently compress your limb to keep it from swelling.

You also need to have a set and wear them without fail every time you exercise or exert pressure on your affected arm(s), even if you have not shown any signs of lymphedema.

Since I had lymph nodes removed from both armpit areas, I wear sleeves and gauntlets for both arms and hands, even though I only have lymphedema in my right arm. I put them on each and every time I exercise without exception.

I also wear them when I rake leaves, help move heavy furniture or fly in an airplane. In short, if pressure will be exerted on my arms by any activity or situation, the sleeves and gauntlets go on first. Compression garments aren’t cheap, and you can do more harm than good if you don’t wear a set for which you have been measured and fitted, so please don’t wear someone else’s sleeves or wrap your arms in bandages as a substitute.

Ask your breast surgeon for a recommendation to a physical therapist who specializes in treating breast cancer patients (many don’t) and have the therapist fit you for a set of sleeves. You also need to know that they wear out; I replace mine every six months. My health insurance covers about 90% of the cost, for which I am grateful, and it’s worth finding out what your insurance will cover.

Second, the PAL participants worked with fitness trainers who received special training to work with cancer patients and survivors. For this study, I partnered with several branches of the YMCA in the area and provided instruction to the staff who would be guiding the PAL participants through their weight training sessions. Please do not assume that your average personal trainer knows the specific needs of a client undergoing breast cancer treatment. Unless the trainer has been specifically educated to work with cancer patients and survivors, she or he is probably not a good choice for you.

Nationally, the YMCA has taken a lead in providing programs for cancer survivors and is a good place to start when you are looking for a fitness center to join and/or a personal trainer. The LIVESTRONG program at the Y provides qualified fitness trainers and instructors to work with people going through cancer treatment, and I recommend it to women who are currently in or have recently completed breast cancer treatment. Not all YMCA branches have instructors trained to work with breast cancer survivors, though, so ask specifically if your instructor has this training.

My trainer is Domenick Salvatore, and he designed the fitness program. In a neat twist of fate, Domenick transitioned from being my student to being my teacher. As a graduate of the health promotion and fitness management major at Rowan University, he was my student for four years. In the last semester of his senior year, I asked him to train me in our fitness laboratory, as I thought he was a particularly talented trainer. It was during that semester that I was diagnosed with cancer.

Domenick partnered with me through all of my treatment, and as I prepared for the figure competition, studying the specific needs of cancer patients and survivors and tailoring the training program to my changing physical condition and ability. After graduation, Domenick earned the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) credential from the National Strength and Conditioning Association, which is one of the most respected personal training certifications available. Domenick now works for Katie as a research assistant, applying his fitness knowledge in new studies of exercise for women at high risk for breast cancer.