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Occupational Therapy for Cancer Survivors

Helping You Get Your Life Back after Cancer

by Claudine Campbell, MOT, OTR/L, CLT

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If you’re having memory problems, an occupational therapist may suggest that you set reminders on your smartphone so you don’t forget important tasks or appointments.

Cancer and its treatment can hinder your participation in im­portant and meaningful activities in many different ways. For example, the various side effects of treatment can im­pede your ability to take a shower every day, prepare meals, or do the laundry. Work responsibilities, leisure interests, social activities, and caring for your chil­dren can also become more challenging during cancer treatment and recovery. On top of these physical challenges, mental functions often are affected as well. For instance, you may have difficulty recall­ing the names of new acquaintances or remembering the details of an article or book chapter you just read.

Can you relate to any of these scenarios? If so, you’re not alone. And there may be something that can help – occupational therapy.

Occupational therapy practitioners are healthcare providers who possess expertise in the knowledge of human occupation. In other words, they know how to help cancer survivors with self-care, work, play, leisure, and social participation. They have special insight into how your physical, mental, and spiri­tual limitations may be impeding your everyday function within your environ­ment. Occupational therapy focuses on helping you overcome these limitations in order to make completing everyday tasks and participating in important activities easier.

Author of Article photo

Claudine Campbell

An occupational therapist can also connect you with professional or community-based support to compre­hensively address your individual needs. In fact, the main objective of a team-based approach to occupational therapy is to help you set goals for functional rehabilitation after cancer treatment and put support systems in place to help you reach these goals and improve your everyday function.

Let’s look at some of the most com­mon rehabilitation goals that cancer survivors seek to achieve and how occu­pational therapy can help you reach them.

♦ Get Better Sleep
An occupational therapist may suggest that you keep a record of the times you go to sleep (including naps) and wake up. Main­taining a sleep journal can help you notice any patterns surrounding when you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Other suggestions may include keeping your bedroom quiet and dark, restricting television and computer use at night, or limiting your fluid intake before bedtime.

♦ Have More Energy to Participate in Activities I Enjoy
An occupational ther­apist can teach you energy conservation techniques to help you balance periods of activity and rest so you can save up your energy for the things that really matter to you. Your therapist can also help you develop a routine for your daily activities, teach you how to schedule important activities during times when you have more energy, suggest ways to modify your home or work environment so that it is more efficient, and help you learn how to do everyday tasks in a way that spends less energy.

♦ Improve Concentration
An occupa­tional therapist can give you tips for improving concentration and focused attention throughout the day. Suggestions may include using a highlighter to mark key points in a document, article, or book; dividing tasks into smaller, more manageable parts; planning breaks dur­ing an activity; and recognizing internal distractions (such as stray thoughts, emo­tions, or physical feelings, like hunger) that may interrupt your ability to focus. Keeping lists of things to buy, errands to run, phone calls to return, or questions to ask your doctor, and crossing items off as you finish them, can also help you stay focused throughout the day.

♦ Complete Everyday Tasks
By helping you prioritize which tasks are necessary and important, an occupational therapist can work with you to determine how to successfully complete those desired tasks or activities. An occupational therapist can offer you creative solutions to help you modify or simplify daily tasks, or suggest adaptive equipment to make them less difficult. For example, sitting on a shower stool during a shower can conserve energy and may make bathing easier. Another creative solution might be to set reminders on your smartphone so that you don’t forget important tasks or appointments.

If you find you are having difficulty completing daily tasks or participating in activities that are important to you, talk to your doctor about occu­pational therapy. An occupational therapist can help you break down the barriers that may be holding you back from fully enjoying your life. You de­serve the best life possible. Don’t let the side effects of cancer or its treatment keep you from living it.

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Claudine Campbell is the occupational therapy manager at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY. She has over 14 years experience in oncology rehabilitation.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2015.