Getting Back to What You Love

How occupational therapy helped Tiffany (and may help you too)

By Jessica Lawlor

Text Size

The place that 51-year-old Tiffany P. feels most at peace is in the yoga studio. After facing breast cancer in 2014, getting back to a regular yoga practice hasn’t been as easy a path as she had hoped.

“I just kept thinking if I can get back to yoga, I can get things back on track and heal and feel well enough to get back to work,” Tiffany, an Alabama native, explains. “But going to yoga was a frustrating experience. I hadn’t even realized how much my range of motion had diminished.”

Like many cancer patients, surgeries and treatment left Tiffany’s body in a different place than before her diagnosis. Years had passed since treatment, but Tiffany still felt pain and discomfort.

“I felt like no one understood how this was affecting my life,” Tiffany says.

At the suggestion of her care team at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Atlanta, Tiffany decided to try occupational and physical therapy in 2018.

“When I came in for my first appointment and explained what was going on and how much time had passed, the team kicked into gear. They heard me and understood. They formulated a treatment plan, and a plan that worked for me because I’m from out of town,” Tiffany shares. “I left the first appointment fighting happy tears. It gave me hope for the first time in a long awhile.”

What Is Occupational Therapy?

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc., occupational therapy is the only profession that helps people across the lifespan to do the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities. At CTCA®, occupational therapists help patients with daily living activities that are important to their routine and quality of life, such as dressing, showering and eating.

Angella Popinga, OTR/L, CLT-LANA, an occupational therapist and lymphedema therapist at CTCA who worked with Tiffany says breast cancer patients initially come to her with all sorts of questions and concerns: “I hear I’m going to get lymphedema, my friend told me I’m not going to be able to use my arm again, am I going to be able to work out?”

Angella says first and foremost, she and the team provide education and resources to the patients they work with.

They meet with patients prior to surgery and perform assessments that establish a baseline level of function, identify any impairments that exist, and provide skilled treatment that can support physical and psychological health to reduce the incidence and severity of future impairments. Therapists are often able to calm fears that may exist prior to a surgery by providing them with the tools and resources available before, during, and after their surgery. Following surgery, they then meet to monitor for changes, offering treatment, if needed. They also share stretches and exercises patients can complete at home to help their recovery.

“Many patients experience difficulty with functional movement post-surgery, even years later, secondary to scar tissue, cording, and myofascial tightness. These limitations can impact a patient’s ability to get back to their pre-surgery level of function including: driving, reaching items on overhead shelves, and getting back to recreational activities that are important to them, Angella explains. “In therapy, we are able to work with the patient to determine what their goals are and how we will work together to attain those goals.”

 How Occupational Therapy Helped Tiffany (And How It Could Help You Too)

After surgery and treatment, Tiffany’s body simply couldn’t do the same things she once could, especially when it came to her favorite activity, yoga.

 “There was a lot of pain after the fact I wasn’t expecting. I couldn’t twist. When I would go to yoga, so much of it involves core strength and twisting. I didn’t have the flexibility and no matter how hard I worked at it, I wasn’t gaining any flexibility,” she says.

Meeting with the occupational therapy team at CTCA was a game-changer for Tiffany.

“The first thing they did at my appointment was tell me there were real reasons I was feeling this way anatomically and physically,” explains Tiffany.

For Angella, it’s important to spend time getting to know her patients. “We want to know what’s important to them. We ask, ‘what’s limiting you?’” she offers.

“We follow patients so that if they do have restrictions, we give them the tools they need to help get back to activities they love through coming into therapy or giving them a home program,” Angella says. “For example, if golf was important to them prior to surgery, we want to get them back to golf and doing the activities they enjoyed prior to surgery.”

Angella and her colleagues formulated a personalized treatment plan for Tiffany, which included multiple modalities to loosen up the scar tissue and fascia that was causing her discomfort. They also gave Tiffany exercises and stretches to complete at home to continue healing on her own.

It’s Never Too Late to Seek Out Occupational Therapy

 Tiffany has a message for all patients experiencing any form of mobility or flexibility issues from surgery or treatment: “Proactively seek out occupational therapy and/or physical therapy, especially if the discomfort is detracting from daily life.”

Angella agrees, and stresses that it is never too late to seek out occupational therapy.

“We see many women who are months to years post-surgery and haven’t realized there’s something they can do with the pulling sensation they have across their chest. It’s not too late to see a therapist or to work on the scar tissue. It’s never too late post-surgery to work toward improving their function,” she explains.

Discovering a New Normal

Tiffany says Angella and the team she worked with helped her in ways beyond just occupational and physical therapy.

“They gave me a space and the ability to talk about what I was experiencing. Through my discussions with Angella and the team, I came to the realization when we talk about finding our new normal, it’s okay if you don’t get back to exactly where you used to be,” Tiffany explains.

For Tiffany, a new normal looks like getting back into the yoga studio even if her practice is different than it was before. It also looks like exploring new hobbies, dabbling with stain glass and pottery.

“It’s okay to be where you are right now,” Tiffany says.