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Occupational Therapy Helps Cancer Survivors Live Life to Its Fullest

by Brent Braveman, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA

Author of Article photo

Dr. Brent Braveman

According to the American Cancer Society, the number of cancer survivors living in the United States will grow to more than 18 million by 2022. While the good news is that more and more people are surviving cancer, thanks to early detection and treatment advances, many of these survivors will face ongoing challenges due to the harsh toll these life-saving treatments can take on the body. After cancer treatment ends, many survivors are left to struggle with fatigue, muscle weakness, pain, neuropathy, physical limitations, and emotional trauma, among other difficulties.

This is where cancer rehabilitation comes in. The purpose of cancer rehabilitation is to address these challenges in order to improve cancer survivors’ quality of life and help them regain function. Many cancer survivors will need some type of rehabilitation either during or after cancer treatment.

One common type of cancer rehabilitation is occupational therapy. Occupa­tional therapists work with cancer survivors to help them regain the ability to perform the everyday tasks of living. These daily tasks are called occupations. They in­clude activities of daily living (grooming, hygiene, sexual activity, swallowing, bathing, dressing) and instrumental activities of daily living (taking care of others, shopping, meal preparation, driving, home and financial manage­ment), as well as participating in school or work, recreation, socializing with others, relaxation, and rest. Occupa­tional therapy is different from physical therapy in that, while physical therapy focuses on helping your body regain strength and mobility, occupational therapy is more concerned with overall function and improving your ability to navigate your daily life.

Occupational therapists work with cancer survivors to help them regain the ability to perform the everyday tasks of living.

What to Expect from an Occupational Therapy Program
No matter what type of cancer you have or the extent of the challenges you are facing, an occupational therapist can tailor a rehabilitation plan to meet your exact needs. Here’s what you can ex­pect when you begin an occupational therapy program during or after cancer treatment:

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After cancer treatment, simple tasks like doing laundry may become exhausting endeavors. Occupational therapy can help.

The first thing your occupational ther­apist will do is conduct an individualized evaluation, during which you and your therapist will set your goals for therapy.

Next, your occupational therapist will work with you to develop a customized plan of care to help you reach those goals. Your care plan will focus on improving your ability to perform the daily occupations (or activities) most important to you.

Once your care plan is in place, you will begin therapy sessions aimed at helping you master the daily occupations you’ve identified as most important, such as bathing, dressing, meal preparation, or managing your home. Your therapy sessions may include strategies to im­prove physical deficits (such as exercise programs to increase strength or range of motion), compensate for physical limitations (such as using assistive equip­ment like a reacher or a tub bench), or modify activities or elements of the environment (such as learning simpler ways to perform tasks or reducing ob­stacles in the home or office). Other strategies may address the emotional impact of cancer, cancer-related fatigue, decreased endurance, visual impairment, chemo brain, or lymphedema.

You will continue occupational ther­apy sessions as long as needed to help you return to a satisfactory level of function. Once your therapy sessions are completed, your occupational thera­pist will provide you with an at-home care plan to help you maintain the gains you achieved during therapy.

Whether you are in a hospital or at home, you can use occupational therapy to regain a full, functional life after cancer treatment. Not only can occupational therapy support you in mastering everyday tasks like bathing or dressing yourself, but it can also help you get back to doing the things you enjoy, like swinging a golf club or playing an instrument. In short, occu­pational therapy can help you live life to its fullest.

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Dr. Brent Braveman, an occupational therapist, is the director of Rehabilitation Services at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX.

For more information on how an occupational therapy practitioner can help you live life to its fullest, visit the American Occupational Therapy Association website at

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2015.