The Role of Somatic Movement in Breast Cancer Recovery

by Kelly Beach

I really do not know how to talk about my breast cancer and rather post mucky recovery, except straightforward how it all occurred, and the HUGE role Somatic Movement had in managing and eliminating my symptoms, remaining hands down the most effective tool for pain, tension, and anxiety control that I have ever experienced.

Let me begin by telling you all that I am a well-schooled licensed massage therapist and bodyworker with 25 years experience. My anatomy and physiology-based practice focuses on pain management, cancer, and women’s health. Myofascial release has been a main modality I have used for years.

I also am a long-time novice athlete, exercising routinely. During youth, I had a backyard in the country to cross-country ski, skate/pond hockey, toboggan, bike, and play any ball game daily. High school competitive athletics included field hockey, volleyball, and softball. Numerous falls and minor injuries occurred daily but none that stopped me from doing anything. Later in life there were some right shoulder repetitive motion injuries that I managed without medical intervention, but did in fact create issues.

In 2018, at the age 52, I was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer and underwent a lumpectomy. Even though the surgery went swimmingly, numerous surprising things cascaded afterward, some difficult to explain, but bear with me a bit.

I exercised all the way through with walking. Three weeks after surgery, I exercised gently in the pool, not swimming, but ROM and aerobic movement.

My anterior right glenohumeral joint and the arm went through various forms of pain including stabbing, pinching, prickling, zapping, and numbness episodes. It was never consistent, but rather an unpredictable revolving chaos. My chest got involved along the sternal edges. My back went into spasm, particularly around the lower corner of the scapula, and my neck stiffened to almost a freeze. My gut also experienced continual progressive visceral spasm. There was epigastric pain and pain across Rib 6-7. The post-surgical breast tissue developed severe edema just 3 days post-op and continued. The size was tremendous, rendering more discomfort. Luckily, that issue never progressed to the arm.

I went for chiropractic work with someone familiar with me, without any relief. I went for myofascial work with an experienced PT, something my body usually responds quite readily to, only to worsen.

Finally, we figured out H. Pylori was an issue and treated that. X-rays and blood tests showed a slight disc issue in the neck and spasm, along with rheumatoid arthritis, but none of that truly explained the dramatic impact of my symptoms. No one I saw had seen the breast edema previously and no one had any suggestions about what to do about any of it other than gabapentin.

I felt like an intricate tangled chaotic mess and wondered how I would get out of it.

My experience with bodywork is that if we can find the right combination, we can heal, so I kept searching. By this time, I was also in a state of anxiety. A fellow bodyworker explains it this way: “If you are in that much distress and it is not resolving, your nervous system has no place else to go. Anxiety is next.”

A client and fellow breast cancer warrior expressed her exploration with Somatic Movement. I investigated almost right away.

Immediately, I grasped that it was a method to reset the body at its deepest level, the nervous system, and to simply communicate with it in a gentle manner but with strong impact.

Besides the renewed hope for an effective therapy, just as importantly, as any of you know who have experienced cancer or medical crisis, was its feasibility and accessibility. This program was more than affordable. One PT session was $130 for an hour versus a whole level of Sarah’s teachings of Clinical Somatics, 13 exercises for $45, and I did not have to take a half a day off to commute to an office. I was ALL in!

From the first exercise, it was clear my whole body was involved in this rather stuck mechanism. After the Arch & Flatten, which I call sacral mobilizations, my whole spine started to respond with boney adjustments and muscular ease. It went something like this, sacrum to T6 right. Next day, sacrum to C5 left, immediately providing pain relief, which was enough to make me feel great hope and be diligent with the program.

When I got to the Back Lift exercise, I could hardly do the first movement, lifting my right arm off the floor. Perhaps, I could lift my arm an inch and when I did, my entire body shook almost violently. I took a breath, and remembered “act as if,” and keep practicing. It’s how we learn anything that is difficult. I kept it small, but about every other day would gain just a little more, so at the end of two weeks of this, I could do all the movements in the Back Lift and the tremors were much diminished. Pain in the arm, the gut, and the back continued to improve daily.

After everything that failed and a body that kept creating some new dilemma, involving it in the tangle, this felt miraculous. It was easy to just stay with the Somatic Movement practice. Results are encouraging from beginning to end!

I use it to control old pain or address new pain. It is a highly effective aid for anxiety, or to clear one’s mind. It is also a focus mechanism. I use it to create awareness, to really feel where I am stuck or weak, and then take that knowing to my exercise routine. I use it also for muscular coordination enhancement, help my body function more smoothly as a whole.

To put a tangible number on my post breast cancer pain and disfunction, I would call that 9’s. I now maintain at a very functional 1 or 2. My neck remained stiff for many months, which had jaw and ear involvement. I stuck with the Level One exercises and started Level Two. That issue is almost resolved now also.

I continue to experience and can say without wavering, it is the most efficacious tool I have ever utilized, and the most feasible. Two years later, I am still learning and gaining. After the breast related items faded from necessary attention, I was over-the-top pleased to feel the exercises beginning to work on very old injuries and patterns, which is the reason I provided such a lengthy introduction, disclosing my age and condition, just in case it may help any of you identify with it. There is hope!

I would strongly encourage any person to just give it a try and stick with it for a while, even if all you can start with is a micromovement. Sarah is a top-notch coach, encouraging exploration, taking it slow, doing what you can, so that even in injury and pain, it is something we can do that takes us toward positive results!

One last note, even when you have to leave the practice alone for a bit due to life circumstances, it is quite easy to return right back to it.

-by Kelly Beach