Physiotherapy after Breast Cancer Surgery: How can we help you?
This week marks the start of the third year of my PhD, and I’m feeling in a reflective mood…deadlines, presentations, secondments come and go and it’s easy to get caught up in my weekly to-do list. But right now I’m taking a step back to think of the big picture and what my project is all about, and I wanted to share this with you!
Every year, nearly 500,000 women in Europe are diagnosed with breast cancer, many of whom will need to have surgery as a crucial part of their treatment. This surgery can lead to stiffness, weakness and pain in the shoulder and arm and Physiotherapists work with patients after breast cancer surgery to get strong and mobile again.
In the past, after breast cancer surgery, women often had to live with chronic shoulder and arm problems, but we now know the importance of post-operative rehabilitation. Nowadays, patients see a Physiotherapist after their operation and are given a daily exercise programme to do at home. However, for anyone undergoing cancer treatment and the many challenges that this brings. doing exercises every day can be very demanding. With everything going on in patients’ lives, it can sometimes be hard to know which exercises to do, when to do them, and how to do them! Of course, everyone’s situation is different, and we should also note here that provision of physiotherapy services varies within and between countries. I firmly believe that everyone should have the opportunity to have as much support as they need to reach their physiotherapy goals! So how can physiotherapists provide this extra support to patients?
This is exactly what I want to find out with my PhD research! I want to see if a mobile application designed for patients and Physiotherapists to use following surgery for breast cancer can help people to feel more supported while doing their rehabilitation at home. The app will have exercise information and videos, and reliable, evidence-based information about post-operative recovery. This means patients will have information and support at their fingertips.
Now for the tech-y part: this is a ‘biofeedback system’, meaning that it gives information back to the patient information about their exercise progress. While exercising, the patient will wear a small movement sensor on their wrist, which send signals through a machine-learning system. This allows the app to count the exercise repetitions, generate progress reports and, hopefully, give users a bit of motivation to continue with their exercises. Also, it’s common to see poor shoulder blade/shoulder movement after this kind of surgery, and we’re working on developing a system that can detect this, and advise the user on their exercise technique.
For me, getting the user involved in all stages of development of this system is crucial, and I’m doing interviews and focus groups with patients and physiotherapists to find out what they want and need from an exercise support tool. I work with a talented team involving a computer engineer and app developer and together we have started to put together the first prototype. It's truly exciting to be involved in such a novel, user-orientated project, and to contribute to the body of research around breast cancer rehabilitation.
I’d like to thank all my supervisors and colleagues at Beacon Hospital, Dublin and University College Dublin for their ongoing help and support.
If you’d like to find out more or discuss this project, I’d love to hear from you!