Benefis Occupational Therapy Helps Breast Cancer Survivor

After 33 radiation treatments, plus chemotherapy and a radical mastectomy for breast cancer, Karen Whisenhunt hoped her medical care journey was done.

However, Karen, like many breast cancer patients, needed occupational therapy to take her the rest of the way back to normal.

“Women like Karen go through so much before they even get to me. They’re sick of all the doctor appointments,” said Darcie Lujan, an occupational therapist at Benefis Outpatient Rehabilitative Therapies. “However, if we don’t treat things in a certain amount of time, it can limit options later.”

Two issues that can arise after breast cancer surgery are decreased range of motion and swelling.

About a month after surgery, Karen began seeing Darcie for scar manipulation.

“Following breast cancer, it’s not uncommon for women to have a decreased range of motion with how those tissues heal,” Darcie said. “Your tissues can become stuck to other tissues, and we also have things like what looks like a cord in your armpit or elbow crease.”

With Karen, Darcie noticed fluid was building up. Some bodies adapt to removing lymph nodes, which move fluid around, and some struggle to circulate that fluid. They start swelling and can develop lymphedema, a condition where fluid collects in tissues.

“It’s important to know what you can do to prevent lymphedema, and the earlier you get treatment for it, the better,” Darcie said.

Darcie works on stretching and manual techniques such as massage to loosen tissues. She also helps caregivers develop skills to help with the techniques. She provides handouts and does telehealth for out-of-town patients.

“We try to meet people in their busy lives however we can,” she said.

Karen’s daughter Pam reflected on all she and her mom had to learn and juggle at once – during a pandemic.

“Darcie did an excellent job communicating over telemedicine” Pam said, though they were happy when COVID-19 regulations allowed them to meet in person.

Karen now has full use of her right arm again. She can reach to shower and dress and more.

“We’ve got this scar tissue that is essentially not there anymore,” Karen said.

“Everybody we’ve seen here for OT and PT has been outstanding,” Karen said. “Darcie knows what she’s doing.”

Darcie has adapted as Karen’s medical needs have evolved, such as arranging for an expert fitting and instruction on a garment that helps reduce swelling.

“That was a big help as we’d never done this before,” Karen said.

Going forward, Karen just hopes to “stay neutral,” and that life will throw no more curveballs her way.