Swimming can be great exercise following mastectomy or lumpectomy surgery for breast cancer. But for some people, returning to the pool after a strenuous, appearance-altering surgical procedure can be daunting for many reasons.
Here are some tips on when and how swimming can benefit you as you recover from breast cancer surgery, as well as ways to overcome potential issues.
First things first: You may be wondering when it’s safe to swim following surgery. It’s always best to ask your surgeon, oncologist, or health care provider how long you should wait before doing certain activities, including swimming, after you have had surgery.
That said, you should wait to go in the swimming pool, ocean, or hot tub at least until the incisions on your surgical site have healed, usually at least three weeks. The particular length of time you should wait before getting physical activity like swimming will depend on the type of surgery you underwent, as well as other factors.
Note that your oncology specialist may also advise against swimming during breast cancer treatment. Chemotherapy reduces your immune system’s ability to fight off foreign invaders, leaving you at a higher risk of developing infections from bacteria in water. Radiation therapy can also make your skin more sensitive to chemicals found in pool water, like chlorine, and lead to irritation.
Here are some tips to keep in mind as you look forward to swimming after surgery.
If you were an avid swimmer before surgery, you may notice that you feel weaker and your joints may feel stiff as you get back into the pool after surgery. It may take some time to build your strength back up and increase your range of motion. Fortunately, swimming can offer gentle stretching and resistance to help you regain your fitness. If you swim laps, start in the slow lane and be patient. You’ll get stronger and faster over time.
If you find swimming difficult at first, consider using modifications such as floats or fins until you gain strength and comfort in the water. You can also rest your arms on a kickboard. Keep in mind that if you experience peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage) in your fingers as a side effect of breast cancer treatment, it may be harder to grip floats.
Some pools offer women-only classes or swim sessions. If you’re a woman feeling anxious about body image as you return to the pool, consider seeking out such a session.
Putting on a swimsuit can raise difficult feelings about the ways breast cancer has changed your body. Being comfortable in a swimsuit — with or without breast reconstruction, breast augmentation, or breast implants — takes time for many members of MyBCTeam. “I wore a swimming boob the first couple of times I went swimming,” wrote one member. “Now, I just go without it. I feel a bit uncomfortable, but my husband tells me to think of it as a ‘teaching moment’ if anybody asks.”
Support from family, friends, and MyBCTeam members helps people who’ve undergone breast cancer treatment become more comfortable with the physical changes they’ve experienced. “When we were at the beach, I was so nervous about having a swimming suit on due to the fact you could see my scars,” one member wrote. “My daughter said to be proud of them. It shows that you are a fighter and a survivor of breast cancer. She has really helped me through this.”
A MyBCTeam member encouraged their teammates with a similar message: “My scars are part of my story and, so far, survival. Our breasts don’t define us any more than the size of our feet does.”
Another member wrote to a teammate, “I think you should proudly strut your stuff in whatever bathing suit makes you smile, because (A) you’re insanely beautiful — scars and all, and (B) the only person who will be aware of that scar is you.”
Whether you’re embracing your scars or covering them, going flat or choosing to wear a breast form, finding a swimsuit that fits and flatters your changed body can be an adventure. Fortunately, swimsuit styles are more varied than ever, and many online stores offer styles designed expressly for people who have undergone breast cancer surgery.
If you want to cover scarring, try higher necklines and armholes. Adjustable straps can help ensure a good fit. Many brands design mastectomy swimwear with pockets to add a prosthetic silicone breast form, if you haven’t had reconstruction. Some brands will even sew in a pocket for free.
One MyBCTeam member offered the following advice for finding post-surgery-friendly bathing suits: “Google mastectomy shops in your area — they sell lots of swimsuits now, along with the bras/tops, etc. They are made to hold the prosthetic — you can hardly tell.”
Another member wrote that they have “been buying regular bathing suits that have a seam around the whole breast area (so when you put the piece in, it will stay in the specific area for the breast) and a small slit on the side to put the prosthetic in. I do this with my bras too.”
If you decide to wear a breast prosthesis, one member offered some guidance: “Make sure they are well secured in your suit. I once read about a ‘foob’ that liberated itself during a water aerobics class. I kept waiting for that to happen during a water aerobics class I occasionally attend.”
This member noted that they weren’t too concerned, however: “Given that it’s a class of 24 women, I’m sure there are BC survivors among them.”
Water buoys the body during swimming, so it’s not a weight-bearing exercise. Swimming alone isn’t likely to help preserve your bone mass and lower your risk for osteoporosis, so be sure to include some weight-bearing exercise along with swimming in your fitness regimen.
Swimming is a great way to fit some exercise into your routine. It can also help you build strength before, during, and after surgery. Here are four benefits of swimming after breast cancer surgery.
Some members of MyBCTeam have shared how swimming helps them recover from surgery. “I have found a great way to help with chest tightness and stretches six months post-double mastectomy, no reconstruction. Swimming!” a member shared. “It’s made a world of difference.”
Another member wrote, “I really find swimming is helpful with post-surgery tightness.”
Research has also suggested that moderate exercise — and swimming, in particular — can help improve lymphedema (lymph node swelling) and seroma (fluid accumulation), both of which can occur following breast cancer surgery.
Some MyBCTeam members have reported that swimming helps. “Daily swimming seems to be reversing my lymphedema!” wrote one member. “Fingers crossed.”
Exercise in general is beneficial for breast cancer survivors. If swimming is a physical activity you enjoy, getting back to it is likely to improve your quality of life overall.
“We’re lucky to have our own pool, and I’m beginning to reap the benefits,” shared one MyBCTeam member. “It’s making a huge difference to my life and general fitness. I’m sleeping better, and those reconstructed little girlies are settling in the right places at last. I’m not a natural swimmer, but it’s helping, so I’ll keep at it.”
Another member rejoiced when they were able to return to their favorite exercise: “Today, I went swimming, and I can actually do laps again!! My form is lopsided (nerve damage from mastectomy), but it’s fun. I feel grateful that I can do this stuff again.”
On MyBCTeam, the social network and online support group for those living with breast cancer, more than 63,000 members talk about a range of personal experiences and struggles. Swimming after breast cancer surgery is one of the most discussed topics.
Have you gone swimming since breast cancer surgery? Do you have any tips to share? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on your Activities page.