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What Can Cancer Rehabilitation Do for Me?

by Leslie J. Waltke, PT, DPT

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As if hearing the words “you have cancer” isn’t difficult enough, it can be even more distressing to discover that the very treatments used to save your life may cause you pain, fatigue and weak­ness, sapping you of the energy needed to enjoy the very life you are fighting to save. But there is promising news – cancer rehabilitation can help.

Years ago, people were told to take it easy following surgery or injury. How­ever, with time and research, healthcare providers have learned that a strict reg­imen of rest is a poor treatment tool. Today, those in recovery are sent to physical therapy and encouraged to ex­ercise. And research is telling us the same thing about rehabilitation during and after cancer treatment.

Cancer rehabilitation and exercise programs have been shown to increase cancer survivors’ quality of life, lengthen life, and possibly even decrease the risk of cancer recurrence. The evidence is so strong that the National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommends that rehabilitation begin right away at cancer diagnosis.

What is cancer rehabilitation?
Cancer rehabilitation is the area of physical medicine that specializes in treating the physical and functional problems that often arise during cancer treatment, including fatigue, pain, dif­ficulty walking, weakness, stiffness, poor balance, neuropathy, swelling, bladder control issues, and sexual prob­lems. Cancer survivors should not have to face these challenges alone. With the help of a physical therapist specializing in cancer rehabilitation, many of these problems can be reduced, eliminated, and sometimes even prevented.

Author of Article photo

Leslie J. Waltke

Where does exercise fit in?
Perhaps the most common and distressing side effect cancer survivors encounter is fatigue. For decades, survivors were told that rest was the best way to com­bat this tiredness. Now, researchers have learned that this was bad advice. Re­search has shown that too much time on the couch actually makes fatigue worse and survivors weaker. Exercise, it turns out, is one of the best treatment tools for reducing cancer-related fatigue. Study after study resoundingly backs this up.

Exercise is not only safe during chemotherapy and radiation, but it is critically important. By keeping the heart, lungs, and muscles strong and active, people who exercise during treat­ment have less fatigue, less nausea, less pain and weakness, and a much quicker recovery. Exercise may also protect the heart from the toxicities associated with some types of chemotherapy.

What else can cancer rehabilitation do for me?
Another set of common physical complaints of cancer survivors is pain, weakness, and decreased func­tion. Regardless of the type of cancer treatment, most people should expect to return to full pain-free function after a recovery period. Unfortunately, however, this is often not the case. But there is hope. A cancer rehabilitation therapist can work with you to help you regain full mobility, strength, and function after cancer treatment, much like rehab after knee replacement surgery.

It is never too late to start feeling better. Whether you are just diagnosed, currently in treatment, or finished with active treatment, talk with your doctor about starting a rehabilitation program. You’ve been through a lot, and you deserve to return to the highest level of pain-free function possible. Cancer rehabilitation can help.

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Leslie J. Waltke is a physical therapist who has dedicated her practice to cancer care. She is the cancer rehabilitation coordinator for Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee, WI.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2015.