by Brent Braveman, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA
According to the American Cancer Society, by 2029 there will be more than 21 million cancer survivors in the United States. Modern cancer treatments are prolonging and saving lives, and that is certainly great news. However, as any cancer survivor or caregiver knows, the treatment process can be tough.
Besides the impact of cancer itself on your body and your ability to perform the important everyday things you want to do, cancer treatments can cause a myriad of problems. Side effects of chemotherapy, radiation, and other treatments include fatigue, nausea, pain, edema, treatment-induced cognitive dysfunction, physical limitations, and emotional trauma, among other difficulties. These side effects can continue even after treatment is over.
Cancer rehabilitation can help. The purpose of cancer rehabilitation is to address the challenges caused by cancer and its treatments 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 therapy practitioners 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 improving your overall function and your ability to navigate your daily life.
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 therapy practitioner 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:
• 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 or occupational therapy assistant 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, preparing meals, 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.
Dr. Brent Braveman is an occupational therapist and 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 AOTA.org.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2019.