When Survival Isn’t Enough

When Survival Isn’t Enough

The Role of Rehabilitation in Cancer Care

by Samman Shahpar, MD

Whether you have been newly diagnosed with cancer or have completed treatment, the recovery process is about achieving your highest potential, which not only includes survival but also maintaining function.

Cancer and the various treatments used to control or cure the disease often leave survivors feeling not quite the same as they did before. Some of the side effects that survivors may experience include fatigue, pain, weakness, and difficulty thinking clearly. These side effects can impair a survivor’s ability to achieve their highest potential. As a physiatrist (or rehabilitation physician) specializing in the field of cancer rehabilitation, my focus is on helping survivors work through these impairments and tap into their potential. Sounds great, right? But what does this mean for you?

As your activity level increases, a cancer rehabilitation specialist can help you establish a comprehensive exercise program.

The side effects cancer survivors experience not only can make daily functioning difficult but also can lead to inactivity and deconditioning. Many people, including doctors, underestimate the effects that inactivity can have on our body and health.

Inactivity leads to deconditioning, which is a decline in function of our body’s organ systems. Studies have shown that deconditioning can cause muscles to lose one to three percent of their strength per day, the heart rate to increase up to 10 beats per minute, and the body to have a decreased pain tolerance. These are just a few examples of the widespread changes inactivity can cause. Amazingly, this decline can occur even if you don’t have any medical issues.

The good news is that we do have a way to prevent and treat reconditioning. It’s called exercise. What is even more exciting is that newer research shows that exercise is so powerful it can help our bodies fight cancer and live longer. No matter what stage a survivor is at in his or her cancer care, there is one universally beneficial piece of advice I always share – make exercise a part of your life.

For some people, initiating an exercise program can be a daunting task. A cancer rehabilitation specialist can help guide you, but the most difficult part is usually just making the decision to integrate exercise into your life. Once you’ve made a commitment to exercise, the first step is to measure your current activity level.

Your Cancer Rehabilitation Plan

Since there is more to you than your cancer diagnosis and treatment regimen, we need to consider all of your life’s experiences, good and bad, when creating your cancer rehabilitation plan. Before beginning rehabilitation, you will undergo an evaluation, which should include a thorough review of your current and pre-diagnosis medical, psychological, and social history. After evaluating your current side effects, as well as any potential future side effects, a cancer rehabilitation specialist will create an individualized care plan for you. This plan should be adjusted as you experience changes in your life, whether it be a new job or a transition in your cancer treatment plan.

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There are many fancy gadgets that can help, but a simple pedometer, which counts the number of steps you take, can get the job done. It’s important to use an objective measurement since we tend to overestimate how active we really are. With accurate information, you can then work together with a cancer rehabilitation specialist to develop an individualized program to reach your goals.

As your activity level increases, a cancer rehabilitation specialist can help you establish a comprehensive exercise program. An ideal program should include three components – aerobic activity, strengthening exercises, and stretching. These components can be integrated into many different activities, such as yoga, golf, and tai chi. The best approach is to find activities that are safe and enjoyable for you.

There are many things in life that we cannot control. However, you can have a strong influence over your own body, and exercise is one of your most potent weapons. Cancer rehabilitation specialists strive to give every survivor the tools and guidance they need to obtain that sense of empowerment and achieve their goals. You can do more than survive; you can thrive.

Dr. Samman Shahpar
© Chris Guillen Photography

Dr. Samman Shahpar is an attending physician in the Cancer Rehabilitation Program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, and a clinical instructor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2014.