The following is reprinted from the American Physical Therapy Association’s (APTA) guide on cancer. You can read their full guide here.
Physical therapists are trained and educated to understand all of your health conditions, including a cancer diagnosis. Your physical therapist will work with you to develop a specialized treatment program to address your specific needs and goals.
The American Cancer Society recommends people undergoing cancer treatment, and cancer survivors, perform consistent physical exercise to decrease fatigue, and improve the ability to perform normal daily activities. Studies show that exercise can improve an individual’s chances of surviving cancer. Physical therapists can design individualized exercise and treatment programs to reduce or prevent many cancer-related problems.
Physical therapists help people diagnosed with cancer before and after surgery. Before surgery, they evaluate individuals for any of the problems listed above, and help address them. After surgery, they can help with the healing of the incision site, improve circulation, reduce pain, and minimize scarring. They evaluate individuals for any physical therapy treatment needs, and, by designing individualized treatment programs, help them recover and heal faster than they would on their own.
Physio can help
Your physical therapist may work with you to improve your:
Comfort and well-being. Cancer and cancer treatments can cause symptoms such as pain, burning sensations, numbness, tingling (neuropathy), cramps, spasms, and weakness. Your physical therapist may apply hands-on techniques (manual therapy) or technologies like electrical stimulation to help decrease your pain and alleviate your symptoms. The physical therapist may teach you gentle exercises or techniques to perform at home to aid your recovery. All of these options may reduce or eliminate the need for opioid pain medication.
Aerobic capacity. Cancer or cancer treatment may have decreased your ability to process oxygen (aerobic capacity), causing fatigue. Research shows that aerobic exercise, such as walking on a treadmill for at least 20 minutes 3 times per week, may help improve aerobic capacity, reduce fatigue, and optimize healing. Your physical therapist can assess your aerobic capacity and determine the best aerobic activities for you.
Bone density. Lack of activity and certain cancer treatments can cause weakening of your bones, which could lead to bone fractures. Certain types of exercise can prevent bone loss and maintain bone strength. Your physical therapist can teach you safe and effective exercises to help steadily build your bone strength.
Lymphedema and swelling. Certain cancer treatments can result in lymphedema (swelling in the arms or legs) or other types of swelling. Your physical therapist can use several methods to reduce, control, and prevent lymphedema and swelling, such as specialized gentle massage, special movements and exercises, and application of compressive garments such as arm sleeves, gloves, and leg stockings.
Surgical incisions. Your physical therapist can help you care for any surgical incisions and sutured areas, by checking for infection and assisting with dressing changes. The physical therapist also can help prevent some kinds of scarring and skin tightness as the suture line heals. Your physical therapist can use very gentle massage or certain technologies to keep the skin as soft and pliable as possible.
Body weight. By creating an exercise and physical activity program tailored just for you, your physical therapist will help you reduce body fat and maintain a healthy body weight, which can improve your energy levels.
Mood. Exercise helps elevate mood and reduce depression in everyone, including cancer patients and survivors. A diagnosis of cancer, and cancer treatment, can be stressful and cause mood changes in anyone. Proper exercise, individualized for each person by a physical therapist, can help reduce stress and improve mood.
Brain fog. Exercise helps relieve brain fog. Your physical therapist can design an individualized program of exercise that can help reduce memory loss and brain fog.
Daily activities. Your physical therapist will discuss activity goals with you and use them to design your treatment program. Cancer survivors usually increase their physical activity gradually; your treatment program will help you reach your goals in the safest, fastest, and most effective way possible.
Walking. Your physical therapist will help improve your ability to walk using techniques such as strengthening exercises, walking training, and balance activities. If you have nerve damage (neuropathy), your physical therapist may provide bracing and other techniques to make it easier or safer for you to walk. Your physical therapist also may recommend using an assistive device, such as a walker or cane.
Sports training ability. Athletes undergoing cancer treatment can continue to train for their sport to a degree, depending on the type of cancer and treatment. Physical therapists design safe, challenging, sport-specific training programs to help athletes reduce loss of fitness and strength during cancer treatment.
Motion. Your physical therapist will choose specific activities and treatments to help restore normal movement in any stiff joints. These might begin with “passive” motions that the physical therapist performs for you, and progress to active exercises and stretches that you do yourself. You can perform these motions at home to help hasten healing and pain relief.
Flexibility. Your physical therapist will determine if any muscles are tight, start helping you to stretch them, and teach you how to stretch them at home.
Strength. If your physical therapist finds any weak or injured muscles, the physical therapist will choose, and teach you, the correct exercises to steadily restore your strength and agility.
Coordination. Your physical therapist will help you improve and regain your coordination and agility, so you can perform household, community, and sports activities with greater ease.
Balance. Your physical therapist will examine your balance, and choose specific exercises that you can perform in the clinic and at home to improve your balance and prevent falls. Your physical therapist may also teach you how to use a cane or walker to help maintain your balance when walking and standing.
Home program. Your physical therapist will teach you strengthening, stretching, and pain reduction exercises to perform at home. These exercises will be designed specifically for your needs.
Please read the American Physical Therapy Association’s (APTA) full guide on cancer here.
The Canadian Physiotherapy Association (CPA) represents physiotherapists, physiotherapist assistants and physiotherapist students across Canada. CPA members are rehabilitation professionals dedicated to the health, mobility and fitness of Canadians.
Physiotherapists are primary health care professionals who combine their in-depth knowledge of the body and how it works with specialized hands-on clinical skills to assess, diagnose and treat symptoms of illness, injury or disability.
More than 20,000 registered physiotherapists work in Canada, in private clinics, general and rehabilitation hospitals, community health centres, residential care and assisted-living facilities, home visit agencies, workplaces, and schools.
The CPA presents its educational references as a public service and for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the opinions of the CPA membership.