Rebuilding Strength: Post-Op Exercises for Breast Cancer Patients
By Lauren Keating
Surviving breast cancer can spark a fire within to get back or to start living an active lifestyle. After getting clearance from a doctor, exercise helps increase physical and mental health. It can further counteract the side effects of chemotherapy and can aid in post-operative recovery when done safely.
“I know the crucial role that physical activity plays in reducing the re-occurrence of cancer in us survivors. Workouts were a lifesaver for me,” said Jennifer Trettner, a breast cancer survivor and Cancer Exercise Specialist (CETI). “There was nothing I could control about my cancer. But working out gave me the power to control something.
"It empowered me during one of the most difficult times in my life.”
On December 21, 2021, Trettner was diagnosed with Stage 1 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, estrogen positive, HER2-positive. This aggressive cancer has a reputation to grow faster and recur. “Your world stops when you are told you have breast cancer,” said Trettner.
But the diagnosis wasn’t a complete shock. Trettner grew up on Long Island, NY where breast cancer is prevalent. With a family history of breast cancer, she had multiple biopsies over the years starting at age 26.
Exercise During Treatment
The BODi (formally Beachbody) and Integrative Wellness & Life Coach continued to exercise throughout chemotherapy and Herceptin infusions.
“Nobody ever talked to me about the importance of working out with a cancer diagnosis. It was never mentioned, and it blew my mind,” she said. “I knew the benefits of exercising for my health. I figured it has to help me on this cancer journey.”
For Trettner, this included Barre workouts that combine yoga stretching and muscle toning Pilates using light weights. According to the American Cancer Society, 150 minutes of exercise is needed per week, which can be broken down into five days a week 30 minutes each. “Most cancer patients like myself cannot start out during treatment or after treatment with 30 minutes,” she said.
Trettner recommends breaking the workouts into 10-minute segments throughout the day. “If you are tired, you have to listen to your body,” she said. This means no exercise on days battling fatigue, or when suffering from nausea or diarrhea. Instead, rest and focus on hydration.
Returning To Exercise Post-Op
In January 2022, Trettner had a bilateral (double) mastectomy to remove the cancer, as well as reconstructive surgery that included expanders.
According to the American Cancer Society, it takes about four weeks or more to recover before returning to routine daily activities depending on the type of surgery. With the approval of her surgeon, Trettner resumed exercise two weeks post-op and recalled how it took her over an hour to walk a half mile. “I was completely drained,” she said. "And I think that took me by surprise because I was in very good shape going into the cancer diagnosis.”
For those of you ready to get back to exercising, remember it's a marathon, not a sprint. Start slowly with regular walks and yoga to focus on endurance, flexibility, and mobility before jumping into more vigorous exercise. Immediately after a mastectomy, there should be no strength training. Not taking the proper time to recover can lead to serious complications.
To progress workouts, first get permission from the doctor and move on to bodyweight exercises. Seated chair exercises that include lifting and extending legs, and rotational twists are a great place to start. For the upper body, skip the weights and do bicep curls, tricep presses, shallow squats, and shallow lunges.
Work with a cancer exercise specialist who is familiar with healing surgery sites, can address muscle imbalances, and create safe and effective workouts post-op.
As the owner of Warrior Workouts, Trettner offers personalized workout plans for survivors virtually and in person, as well as leads small group classes. A class starts with 15 minutes of static stretches. The 55-year-old instructs a circuit of arms, back, chest, squats, lunges, and Barre movements. Weights aren’t always used but range between one to up to four pounds for slow movements of eight repetitions each.
“Women, in general, the one thing we are self-conscious about is our arms. I suggest starting with very low weights,” she said. Trettner believes a person can transform their body using light weights when consistent and with proper nutrition. Make sure to end a workout with more stretches, she further advises.
When ready to take exercise to the next level—again with doctor clearance—progressions include lifting slightly heavier weights and adding more repetitions. For bodyweight exercise, go deeper into the move such as progressing from a shallow squat to a deeper sit in the squat.
Lymphedema Myths and Risks
Breast cancer patients may have lymph nodes removed, putting them at risk for lymphedema, the tissue swelling caused by the build-up of lymph fluid. It is a myth that exercise increases the risk of lymphedema. It’s even safe to strength train. Studies found a 50 percent reduced risk of developing lymphedema when following a lifting program that progresses the weight slowly. However, lymphedema can occur when lifting too heavy or too fast. “We always have to keep in mind that there is a chance that of us getting lymphedema 10 years down the road,” Trettner said.
Visit the doctor right away if lymphedema is suspected. To move the lymphatic system, Trettner recommends rebounding, the low-intensity aerobic activity where a person lightly bounces on a mini trampoline.
Conclusion: Rebuild Strength
Coming out of the other side of breast cancer treatment and surgery can be a challenging time. But being proactive in healing physically and mentally is important.
“I believe the doctors are not the only partners in our health journey. We are the biggest partner in our health journey,” Trettner said.
My cancer journey has been a gift helping me to focus on what is important in life and has given me new purpose. Warrior Workouts was born from this place of challenge and my hope is to help other breast cancer/cancer warriors navigate their journey by offering recovery services including exercise and talk therapy.
To learn more about post-op exercises with Jennifer Trettner visit