YOUR HEALTH: A better outcome after mastectomies

ANN ARBOR, Michigan – For some breast cancer survivors, the battle continues long after they are free of disease.

"My sister had breast cancer," remembered Tina Harrison.

"I went through everything with her down in Florida.  My mom had ovarian cancer.  My grandmother had breast cancer.  Came back from my sister's cancer surgery and went to my doctor."

Tina chose to have a preventive double mastectomy, that's when doctors found her cancer.

Five years later, she still feels the effects of surgery.

"Stiffness, yes. Pain, yes. It was all there."   -Tina Harrison

Researchers are studying long-term shoulder function in breast cancer survivors.

Women who seem to lose the most function have undergone a procedure called a lat flap reconstruction.

"They basically take muscle off the back, move it to the chest wall and use that to house the permanent implant," explained David Lipps, assistant professor in Movement Science at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology.

Doctoral student Josh Leonardis motivates Tina to push against the robotic device, measuring how the muscle reacts.

Tina did not have a lat flap reconstruction, but still has shoulder pain.   Lipps says the goal is to identify which patients would benefit from earlier physical therapy.

"For functional tasks like lifting a bag of groceries off the ground or moving your arm around back to hook a bra," said Lipps.

Lipps says he was finishing his training in 2013 when his mother, Marsha, was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed radiation.

Lipps says his interest in radiation therapy and muscle tissue evolved to the work he does today studying surgical outcomes in breast cancer survivors.

"We're really interested in studying the mechanisms of why women are impacted by breast cancer surgeries," he said.

"We have a variety of techniques for doing this:  One technique we have is a robot assisted measure of shoulder stiffness, so we can actually measure globally how all the muscles around the shoulder impact how someone is able to stabilize their shoulder.   And then we have some cool ultrasound techniques in the lab, ultrasound elastography, where we can measure specifically how the stiffness of different individual muscles changes following different breast cancer managements."

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at

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