Aging with Breast Cancer and how Occupational Therapy can Help

Did you know the median age of a breast cancer diagnosis is 62, and nearly 20% of women diagnosed with breast cancer are over the age of 75? In fact, women 70+ have a 1/24 chance of developing breast cancer at some point in their lives. 

Older adults with breast cancer may experience a number of physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges during and after treatment. Changes in physical strength and endurance is a common side effect, drastically increasing one’s risk for falls. Similarly, many people experience changes in their cognitive functions such as delayed processing, feeling “fuzzy”, and decreased attention. These changes can lead to decreased independence with safety awareness and even everyday tasks like paying your bills or organizing your day. People may also experience a whole range of emotions from deep anxiety and depression to acceptance and gratitude. 

While many of the above symptoms may be experienced by anyone living with cancer, breast cancer can lead to some specific challenges depending on the form of treatment received. For example, following a mastectomy, the involved arm may experience dysfunction such as decreased range of motion, decreased strength, and pain. This can lead to the muscles tightening over time, which makes it impossible for the person to move their arm later. Additionally, people who have had lymph nodes removed may experience swelling in their arm. This swelling is called lymphedema and is more persistent than swelling after a mild injury. 

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms occupational therapy can help. Your occupational therapist will complete an individualized assessment. So while breast cancer and the side effects of treatment may impact different people in different ways, your occupational therapist is going to spend some time getting to know you and identifying what your specific needs are. 

One common symptom occupational therapists address is fatigue. Occupational therapy helps people think how they want to spend their time and energy, and develop strategies to help them do just that. Sometimes that means taking breaks throughout the day or spreading activities out throughout the week. It might also mean prioritizing which activities you’d like to spend your energy on. For example, it might be worth asking your spouse to make dinner so you have the energy to play with your grandchildren. 

An important way OT can support folks either in active treatment or remission is addressing cognitive changes. Symptoms people might notice are that they become more disorganized, have trouble remembering things, or have trouble concentrating. These symptoms can have a huge impact on our day to day life. Occupational therapy can help you develop strategies to manage these symptoms.

Occupational therapists who are lymphedema trained can also help with the swelling in the arm (lymphedema) that is a common side effect of surgery for breast cancer. Managing lymphedema requires long term maintenance. Often people need to wear a compression garment during the day and a different garment at night. Sometimes it can be challenging to put these garments on as our bodies age. OT can help you problem solve how to manage the symptoms of lymphedema long term and adapt those strategies as your body changes. 

To learn more about living with breast cancer as you age check out our episode of the Moxie OT Podcast  where we get deeper into this topic with Pooja A. Patel, DrOT, OTR/L, CDP, CFPS, CGCP.


Breast Cancer Research Foundation. (2021, February, 18). Breast cancer in the elderly: Treating this growing patient population. Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Tran, H. (n.d). Treating breast cancer in people age 70 and up. Johns Hopkins Medicine.,can%20also%20get%20breast%20cancer.