Guide to Cancer. How a Physical Therapist Can Help.
Cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the body that causes destruction of normal, healthy cells. This process affects the health and function of the body or body parts, and can cause death. Cancer affects 39.6% of people in the United States (US) at some point in their lives, with more than 1.5 million new cases diagnosed each year. Cancer deaths are higher among men than women in the US—highest in African-American men, and lowest in Asian/Pacific Islander women. Worldwide, approximately 14 million new cancer cases are diagnosed each year, and 8.2 million deaths from cancer are recorded.
Cancer, and the treatments for it, can cause physical problems such as pain, numbness, swelling, weakness, loss of balance, and difficulty moving or walking. Physical therapists help people manage cancer-related problems, improve their health and functional abilities, and return to work and other activities.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
Physical therapists are trained and educated to understand all of your health conditions, including a cancer diagnosis. Your physical therapist will work with you to develop a specialized treatment program to address your specific needs and goals.
The American Cancer Society recommends people undergoing cancer treatment, and cancer survivors, perform consistent physical exercise to decrease fatigue, and improve the ability to perform normal daily activities. Studies show that exercise can improve an individual’s chances of surviving cancer. Physical therapists can design individualized exercise and treatment programs to reduce or prevent many cancer-related problems.
Physical therapists help people diagnosed with cancer before and after surgery. Before surgery, they evaluate individuals for any of the problems listed above, and help address them. After surgery, they can help with the healing of the incision site, improve circulation, reduce pain, and minimize scarring. They evaluate individuals for any physical therapy treatment needs, and, by designing individualized treatment programs, help them recover and heal faster than they would on their own.
Your physical therapist may work with you to improve your:
Comfort and well-being: Cancer and cancer treatments can cause symptoms such as pain, burning sensations, numbness, tingling (neuropathy), cramps, spasms, and weakness. Your physical therapist may apply hands-on techniques (manual therapy) or technologies like electrical stimulation to help decrease your pain and alleviate your symptoms. The physical therapist may teach you gentle exercises or techniques to perform at home to aid your recovery. All of these options may reduce or eliminate the need for opioid pain medication.
Aerobic capacity: Cancer or cancer treatment may have decreased your ability to process oxygen (aerobic capacity), causing fatigue. Research shows that aerobic exercise, such as walking on a treadmill for at least 20 minutes 3 times per week, may help improve aerobic capacity, reduce fatigue, and optimize healing. Your physical therapist can assess your aerobic capacity and determine the best aerobic activities for you.
Bone density: Lack of activity and certain cancer treatments can cause weakening of your bones, which could lead to bone fractures. Certain types of exercise can prevent bone loss and maintain bone strength. Your physical therapist can teach you safe and effective exercises to help steadily build your bone strength.
Lymphedema and swelling: Certain cancer treatments can result in lymphedema (swelling in the arms or legs) or other types of swelling. Your physical therapist can use several methods to reduce, control, and prevent lymphedema and swelling, such as specialized gentle massage, special movements and exercises, and application of compressive garments such as arm sleeves, gloves, and leg stockings.
Surgical incisions: Your physical therapist can help you care for any surgical incisions and sutured areas, by checking for infection and assisting with dressing changes. The physical therapist also can help prevent some kinds of scarring and skin tightness as the suture line heals. Your physical therapist can use very gentle massage or certain technologies to keep the skin as soft and pliable as possible.
Body weight: By creating an exercise and physical activity program tailored just for you, your physical therapist will help you reduce body fat and maintain a healthy body weight, which can improve your energy levels.
Mood: Exercise helps elevate mood and reduce depression in everyone, including cancer patients and survivors. A diagnosis of cancer, and cancer treatment, can be stressful and cause mood changes in anyone. Proper exercise, individualized for each person by a physical therapist, can help reduce stress and improve mood.
Brain fog: Exercise helps relieve brain fog. Your physical therapist can design an individualized program of exercise that can help reduce memory loss and brain fog.
Daily activities: Your physical therapist will discuss activity goals with you and use them to design your treatment program. Cancer survivors usually increase their physical activity gradually; your treatment program will help you reach your goals in the safest, fastest, and most effective way possible.
Walking: Your physical therapist will help improve your ability to walk using techniques such as strengthening exercises, walking training, and balance activities. If you have nerve damage (neuropathy), your physical therapist may provide bracing and other techniques to make it easier or safer for you to walk. Your physical therapist also may recommend using an assistive device, such as a walker or cane.
Sports training ability: Athletes undergoing cancer treatment can continue to train for their sport to a degree, depending on the type of cancer and treatment. Physical therapists design safe, challenging, sport-specific training programs to help athletes reduce loss of fitness and strength during cancer treatment.
Motion: Your physical therapist will choose specific activities and treatments to help restore normal movement in any stiff joints. These might begin with "passive" motions that the physical therapist performs for you, and progress to active exercises and stretches that you do yourself. You can perform these motions at home to help hasten healing and pain relief.
Flexibility: Your physical therapist will determine if any muscles are tight, start helping you to stretch them, and teach you how to stretch them at home.
Strength: If your physical therapist finds any weak or injured muscles, the physical therapist will choose, and teach you, the correct exercises to steadily restore your strength and agility.
Coordination: Your physical therapist will help you improve and regain your coordination and agility, so you can perform household, community, and sports activities with greater ease.
Balance: Your physical therapist will examine your balance, and choose specific exercises that you can perform in the clinic and at home to improve your balance and prevent falls. Your physical therapist may also teach you how to use a cane or walker to help maintain your balance when walking and standing.
Home program: Your physical therapist will teach you strengthening, stretching, and pain reduction exercises to perform at home. These exercises will be designed specifically for your needs.
What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?
All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat cancer-related movement problems. However, you may want to consider:
A physical therapist who has experience treating people with cancer before and after surgery, and during cancer treatment. Some physical therapists have a practice with an oncology, lymphedema, or pain management focus.
A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who completed a residency or fellowship in cancer physical therapy. This therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition
You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.
General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):
Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.
When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapist’s experience in helping people who have your type of problem.
During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.
(2019, August 4). Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.moveforwardpt.com/symptomsconditionsdetail.aspx?cid=256fdb5e-efde-44db-bbb3-ca2d56e68b50
Image from PT and Me