Pilates after breast cancer surgery

Pilates is a top choice for recovery from breast cancer surgery. Fiona Hardie, a Pilates instructor, expands more on this.

What is Pilates?

Developed by Joseph Pilates, this modality is an ideal exercise for all body types and perfect for anyone recovering from surgery.  Pilates emphasises quality and precision of movement and control. 

It focuses on posture and teaches how to hold posture comfortably and correctly which inevitably results in a more content way of life.

A good Pilates session celebrates the uniqueness of each individual and is the ideal method for self-discovery, empowerment and healing.1

The cornerstone in the early phases post-surgery is always breath, body awareness, and basic everyday movements. Remember that it’s best to get the go-ahead from your treating doctor before beginning exercise. 

Benefits of Pilates

It all begins with the breath. The deep breath work which is the focus of Pilates movement brings about a state of calm and relaxation, diminishing the anxiety and tension so often experienced after any treatment. 

Impaired movement and stiffness in the neck and shoulders post-surgery can lead to shallow breathing, tightness in the upper body and lymphoedema. Therefore, the increase in oxygen from the deep diaphragmatic breath aids in detoxifying the organs from chemotherapy and radiation toxicity.

Correct posture is integral to mental, emotional and physical well-being. Pilates’ focus on postural alignment helps to stabilise the shoulder blades, keep the neck aligned and aid good posture. 

Mastectomy and radiation can cause scar tissue to develop which in turn leads to a lowered range of movement and flexibility. Moreover, Pilates works the body as a whole, so while striving to regain strength and range of movement in the upper extremities, the core, hips and legs are all worked at the same time.  

Flexibility, lengthening and range of movement

Thanks to the attention given to flexibility, compensations which tend to occur in other parts of the body after surgery or injury are avoided because lengthening, opening and range of movement exercises form a large part of a session.

When in pain or confined to bed rest, other limbs and joints tend to compensate due to the discomfort thus leading to aches and niggles in areas totally unrelated to the surgery. A good instructor will see these in their client’s’ body and will design the class to balance these out. Overall, Pilates orchestrates a feeling of complete balance within the client.

After diagnosis, treatment and surgery, many women feel detached from their bodies. Pilates may overcome this, as it’s focused on proprioception (the concept of being aware of one’s body and its movement in space). Proprioception is vital to the brain as it plays a massive role in co-ordination, posture, body awareness, focus and even speech. Pilates can consequently leave you with a more positive, confident outlook of yourself. 

For those who have had lymph node removal, an increase in lymph and even lymphoedema is a risk. Here Pilates again lends itself as the ideal exercise. 

The deep breathing helps to move lymph as the lymphatic system doesn’t have its own “pump” and needs movement and breath to help it along. This condition also impedes mobility, proper balance of the musculature, and increases tightness. The movement and stretching so typical of Pilates are excellent for avoiding this. 

A new zest for life

It’s always advisable to begin with a one-on-one Pilates class because each body is so different, and a class is usually specifically tailored to the client’s individual needs. 

The added beauty of Pilates is that it can be continued throughout your life. It’s there to inspire you in the dark moments of despair, and it’s there to uplift and empower you as your healing increases and strength grows along with a renewed zest for life. 

Fiona Hardie, based in the Western Cape, is a Pilates instructor, reflexologist and has experience in Bowen therapy and ear acupuncture. She is currently doing a breathwork course through Breathwork Africa.

MEET THE EXPERT – Fiona Hardie

Fiona Hardie owns a Pilates studio in Bryanston, Gauteng where she also does Bowen Therapy, therapeutic reflexology, AcuDetox, and Bach flower remedies. She treats each client holistically taking into consideration their posture, physical state as well as their mental and emotional well-being. 



Header image by Adocbe Stock