September 12, 2012

Exercise Is the Best Medicine For Breast Cancer Survivors

RECOVERING RANGE OF MOTION: Instructor Patti Haggerty, left, and Neurac Institute co-owner Jamie Kornbluth, right, demonstrate the gentle exercises offered by the Pink Ribbon Program, which helps breast cancer patients regain their strength and flexibility. The Bunn Drive rehabilitation studio is currently offering the program, just in time for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is October.

Breast cancer patients recovering from surgery and follow-up treatments have traditionally been told by their doctors to rest during the healing process. But taking it easy, it turns out, isn’t always the best idea.

More current thinking shows that exercising as soon as possible is the key to reclaiming the range of motion commonly lost after mastectomy or the removal of lymph nodes. The simple act of washing one’s hair, or raising an arm to put dishes away in an overhead cupboard, can be severely compromised by these procedures, leading to feelings of depression and defeat.

It is early intervention — as soon as a doctor gives the green light — that can make the difference, experts say. The Neurac Institute, a local rehabilitation and sports performance center located on Bunn Drive, is now offering workout sessions specially tailored to breast cancer survivors. Known as the Pink Ribbon Program, this rehabilitation system uses Pilates exercises, principally, to help patients regain full range of motion in areas affected by their surgery. Clients can begin as early as six weeks after their procedure, or as late as several years after surgery.

“Once you get through all the drama of surgery and possibly radiation or chemotherapy, you are often told to take it easy,” says Patti Haggerty, a certified Pilates instructor who has been specifically trained in the six-year-old Pink Ribbon Program. “But there is tremendous value in exercise. It can restore range of motion. It can help prevent lymphedema (swelling of the arm caused by a compromised lymphatic system) and infections, which is everybody’s biggest fear.”

Breast cancer survivor Doreen Puglisi, a New-Jersey-based exercise physiologist, founded the Pink Ribbon Program after working with breast cancer survivors and then becoming a patient herself. She has trained more than 400 instructors in the United States, Europe, and Australia in the technique she developed. Many, like Ms. Haggerty, are Pilates instructors; others are physical therapists. The program focuses on stretching and strengthening the shoulder, chest, back, and abdominal muscles.

Once a client reaches a certain level, she (or he) can progress to regular Pilates exercise sessions, or Redcord, another system of rehabilitation offered at the Neurac Institute. “Pilates is the next step, and it’s an easy transition,” says Jamie Kornbluth, who is co-owner of the Institute. “And Patti knows just how to help the person make that transition, because she knows what they have been through. Clients don’t feel like they’re being thrown to the wind when they finish, because they can continue their fitness training right here, at the next level.”

Ms. Haggerty’s personal connection to breast cancer is her closest friend, who is a 14-year survivor of the disease. “The good news is that she is a survivor,” Ms. Haggerty says. “But what isn’t as good is that after her surgery, no one told her that she’d lose her range of motion if she didn’t exercise. If she had known, she would be better off today.”

The Pink Ribbon Program is for patients at all levels of fitness. Ideally, training should begin within a year of surgery. “The best time to start is six to twelve weeks after, because you’re really nipping it in the bud and getting that range back,” says Ms. Haggerty. “And one of the most important things for breast cancer patients is regaining control, strength, and self-esteem. This is the way to do it.”