By Professional Physical Therapy
Cancer, a challenging battle that millions of individuals face, not only affects one’s physical health but also takes a toll on mental and emotional well-being. In the journey towards recovery, the role of physical therapy might not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, the role of physical therapy should be considered to help alleviate pain, improve mobility, and enhance the overall quality of life for cancer patients. We will discuss the pivotal role of physical therapy in cancer treatment, the conditions it addresses, its physical and mental health benefits, suitable exercises, and the holistic support it provides.
The Role of Physical Therapists in Cancer Treatment
Physical therapists are an integral part of a multidisciplinary cancer treatment team. They work in close collaboration with oncologists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to provide comprehensive care. Their primary goal is to restore and enhance the physical function of cancer patients, mitigate the side effects of treatments, and help patients regain their independence.
Professional’s Natalie Baccile Rodrigues, PT, DPT, CLT (Certified Lymphedema Therapist) has extensive experience working with patients battling cancer and lymphedema and adds, “Physical therapists are blessed and privileged with the opportunity to spend an abundant amount of one-on-one time with our patients and their families. As a result, our involvement in the treatment of cancer is essential. We place ourselves on the front lines of the profound physical and emotional struggles patients may face before, during and after their cancer treatment. I have found that our treatment tools and therapeutic techniques provide our patients with the best possible outcomes and timely results. Working with these special patients, who are infinitely motivated to recover for their families and friends, has been the most rewarding aspect of my career.”
Common Cancer-Related Conditions Addressed by Physical Therapists
Cancer treatment can take a toll on the body, affecting mobility, strength, and overall well-being. PT can address many common related impairments including:
Pain is the most common symptom in patients with cancer. It can be mild, moderate, or severe. It may take several forms, such as feeling a sharp stabbing pain that comes and goes, a tingling or burning sensation or a persistent ache.
Cancer Related Fatigue (CRF) is the second most common complaint among cancer-related symptoms. It refers to subjective, persistent, and distressing sense of tiredness or exhaustion related to cancer or cancer treatments.
Peripheral Neuropathy is damage to the nerves that carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Anti-cancer drugs, especially chemotherapy regimens, can cause nerve damage. If a tumor is close to a nerve and pressing on it, it can cause peripheral neuropathy. Surgery may also damage nerves. For example, breast cancer surgery may cause numbness or tinging and pain in the arm.
Joint Stiffness can be caused by different types of cancer or cancer treatment. Limited mobility is also common after surgery or prolonged bed rest.
Balance and Coordination can be affected by fatigue, confusion, and low blood counts. These conditions can add to problems with balance and falling.
Lymphedema is an abnormal swelling in an extremity, chest or abdomen, due to a compromise in the lymphatic system. Lymphedema is not always related to a cancer diagnosis. However, treatments such as radiation, chemotherapy, biopsy, extensive surgery and lymph node removal can make patients more susceptible to this condition. Tumors can also cause a physical obstruction in lymph nodes. The arm or leg with lymphedema typically presents as visual swelling, accompanied by feelings of heaviness, tightness, fullness, tingling or aching.
While lymphedema can occur in people with many different types of cancer, it mostly commonly occurs in the surgical arm after any type of breast surgery (i.e., biopsy, lumpectomy, mastectomy, reconstructive surgery).
How Physical Therapy Can Help Physical Health of Cancer Patients
Below are some techniques and ways that help patients during their recovery journey.
- Individualized Assessment: Physical therapists begin by conducting a thorough assessment of the patient’s physical condition, considering the type of cancer, treatment received, and any pre-existing conditions. This assessment forms the basis for creating a personalized rehabilitation plan.
- Pain Management: Physical therapists use various techniques such as manual therapy, gentle stretching, and modalities like heat, cold, or electrical stimulation to alleviate pain and improve comfort.
- Range of Motion and Flexibility Exercises: Physical therapists design exercises that focus on gentle stretching and joint mobilization to improve flexibility and prevent stiffness.
- Strength Training: Chemotherapy and extended bed rest and limited activity can result in muscle weakness. Physical therapists develop strength training exercises that gradually increase in intensity, helping patients rebuild muscle strength and endurance.
- Lymphedema Management: Trained healthcare professions use manual lymph drainage, compression techniques, and exercises to promote lymphatic flow and manage the condition. While a lymphedema certification is not required to treat patients with this condition, consulting a certified lymphedema therapist is recommended based on the complexity of the diagnosis.
- Neuropathy Management: Neuropathy, a nerve-related side effect of some cancer treatments, can lead to balance issues, difficulty with walking and standing, and numbness. Physical therapists incorporate balance exercises and sensory re-education techniques to address neuropathic symptoms.
- Scar Tissue Management: Surgical scars can cause restrictions in movement and cause discomfort and compensations during daily activities. Physical therapists use scar tissue mobilization techniques to improve tissue flexibility and range of motion.
How Physical Therapy Can Help Mental Health of Cancer Patients
- Breathing and Relaxation Techniques: Deep breathing and relaxation exercises help manage stress, anxiety, and fatigue that often accompany cancer treatment. These techniques promote relaxation and improve lung function.
- Patient Education: Physical therapists educate patients about their condition, treatment side effects, and the importance of maintaining physical activity. This empowers patients to take an active role in their recovery and reduces the fear of “overdoing” activity.
- Psychological Support: Physical therapists provide emotional support and motivation throughout the recovery process, helping patients stay positive and focused on their goals.
- Transition to Normal Activities: As patients move towards the end of their treatment, physical therapists guide them in transitioning to normal daily activities and exercise routines. This helps build confidence and independence.
- Long-Term Wellness Planning: Even after treatment, physical therapists continue to work with patients to develop long-term wellness plans that include regular exercise and healthy lifestyle choices.
Exercises Tips for Cancer Patients
The type of exercises recommended varies based on the patient’s condition and treatment stage. Generally, cancer patients should do physical activity that does not cause a flare-up or increase in pain. Some examples of exercises may include:
- Gentle stretching.
- Resistance training with appropriate weights, equipment, and resistance bands.
- Aerobic activities like walking.
- Relaxation and breathing techniques.
- Postural education and training to prevent future injury.
- Individualized plans to tolerate work, childcare, recreation, and baseline function.
Physical therapy is an essential component of the holistic care approach for cancer patients. Its myriad benefits extend beyond the physical realm, impacting emotional well-being, functional independence, and overall quality of life. With the guidance of skilled physical therapists, cancer patients can navigate the challenges of treatment, recovery, and survivorship with greater resilience and vitality.
At Professional Physical Therapy, we are committed to being a supportive partner on your journey to health and healing. If you or a loved one are facing cancer, consider the advantages of incorporating physical therapy into your care plan. Visit one of our Professional Physical Therapy clinics near you to get started. Request an appointment for a consultation so you can feel better and get back to doing the things you love.