The Benefits of Physical Rehabilitation of a Person with Cancer

Hearing the dreaded diagnosis of cancer is something no one wishes to hear. Many questions come along with it… What kind? How bad? How long do I have? What do I do now?

Treating the body and the person

While you and your oncologist are going to be at the forefront of how to treat your cancer directly, if you choose to go that route, it is worthwhile to note that there are other/additional treatment options to treat you as a whole person, too. This is where physical therapy (PT) can play a role. While PT is not appropriate to treat cancer itself directly, it absolutely can be appropriate to treat the body and person that the cancer is affecting. Cancer and conventional cancer treatments can cause pain, fatigue, anxiety, and mood disturbances, among other things.

Joint and muscle pain

Pain is the most commonly reported symptom of cancer, affecting 50-90% of those diagnosed. A rehabilitation professional can address mild to moderate joint and muscle pain through physical agents, when appropriate, such as thermotherapy (heat), cryotherapy (cold), massage, electrical stimulation, immobilization, biofeedback, relaxation techniques, and exercise.2

Cancer-related fatigue

Cancer-related fatigue, a distressing, persistent, and subjective sense of tiredness or exhaustion related to cancer or cancer treatment, is perceived by many to be more distressing than pain or nausea and vomiting. It has been shown that aerobic exercise and physical activity can reduce fatigue, improve energy level and stamina, and increase daily activities without increasing fatigue.2

Other cancer side effects

Other harsh side effects that can come with cancer treatments may include weakness, little to no appetite that could lead to malnutrition, poor endurance, neuralgias (numbness/tingling), constipation or diarrhea, and cognitive issues. Additionally, cancer can rightfully cause emotional changes such as anxiety, stress, depression, and mood swings. Again, exercise can be used to combat all of these symptoms and side effects.

The value of exercise

Studies examining the therapeutic value of exercise of people with various cancers during primary cancer treatment suggest that exercise is safe and feasible.2 By reducing symptoms and improving strength and endurance through appropriate exercise, you can counter the effects of the disease and medication interventions, subsequently helping improve physical functioning and mood disturbances and, hence, overall quality of life.

Research has shown exercise to:1-4

  • Improve lung function
  • Improve heart function
  • Improve blood pressure regulation (orthostatic hypotension {when your blood pressure drops with positional changes, causing lightheadedness or fainting} can be a side effect of cancer treatments)
  • Improve anxiety, stress, and depression
  • Improve fatigue
  • Improve circulation, which could improve neuropathy
  • Improve appetite
  • Improve insulin sensitivity (so that your body is more efficient at using the nutrients you provide it)
  • Improve bone mineral density (osteoporosis, low bone mineral density, can be a side effect of cancer and cancer treatments)
  • Improve lymphatic system draining (lymphedema can occur if lymph nodes are removed or affected)
  • Improve safety by decreasing fall risk
  • Improve overall quality of life

If your doctor hasn’t already mentioned it, ask him/her about a referral for physical therapy so that you may get one-on-one attention and education on an exercise and therapeutic program with a licensed professional.

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