Using physical therapy to recover after breast cancer surgery

BILLINGS -Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are treatments many are familiar with because of breast cancer. But two treatments that often go unheard of until someone is diagnosed are lymphedema therapy and physical therapy.

Women at all stages of a breast cancer diagnosis find themselves in the hands of therapist, guiding them through the exercises. Jennifer Gilbertson, 44 of Billings, is a breast cancer survivor on the road to recovery following her 2014 diagnosis.

“It’s been kind of a rocky road. Kind of a rollercoaster is what I would call it,” Gilbertson said.

Gilbertson has been through a laundry list of breast cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. ”I’m on the back end of it and doing really well and had a lot of positive support from everyone around me, family and friends,” she said.

A new, unexpected yet welcomed part of that support group is Jennifer Haarr, a physical therapist and certified lymphedema specialist at Billings Clinic. ”Oftentimes they come to see me and they don’t really understand why they’re seeing a physical therapist for breast cancer,” Haarr said.

The reason is scar tissue builds up and muscles get tense following radiation and surgery. With sessions on and off for the past year, Gilbertson is undergoing yet another round of therapy following her recent surgery.

“I’ll be going back to see her again to do some continuing stretching and range of motion, which is very important because it helps in everyday activities,” Gilbertson said.

“My hope is that she feels like she is better and she is recovering more quickly because of it,” Haarr said.

Depending on the severity of each patient’s case, therapy visits can be as few as two but as constant as once a week for several months.

For Haarr, now on her eleventh year of working side-by-side with women like Gilbertson, guiding patients through the movements has become a labor of love as she tries to get them back to doing the activities they enjoy the most.

“I feel like I’m right where I need to be and I feel like I walk away stronger and better for the people I get to work with,” Haarr said.

Strength can also be found in the bonds she creates while working with patients at their most vulnerable moments.

“They get to know you personally, everything you’ve been through. You can laugh together, cry together, and it’s such a great experience to have that. It really is,” Gilbertson said.