Mesothelioma Patients Who Are In Pain and Are Feeling Tired: Physio Can Help

“Gerry” finally put off going to the doctor’s and confirmed what was going on. His chest pain, never-ending couch and fatigue were simply not going away and were starting to affect his ability to work as construction site supervisor. When he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, Gerry was depressed, confused and anxious.

What did that even mean? The years of working directly with asbestos before it was phased out had taken its toll and Gerry had developed cancer.

Are you currently living with pain from mesothelioma (cancer)? Physiotherapists are trained to help a variety of types of patients, including Gerry.

We can help patients experience less pain, rely less on painkillers, reduce fatigue, boost mood, and help you enjoy a better quality of life.


What exactly is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is an aggressive and incurable type of cancer that is most often caused by exposure to asbestos. It begins in the tissue lining organs in the body, called the mesothelium.

Most people diagnosed with mesothelioma worked in an environment with asbestos and developed cancer decades later.

The most common form is pleural mesothelioma, which attacks the lining of the chest cavity and is most often associated with inhaling asbestos fibres.

The small fibres of this natural mineral become airborne easily and can be inhaled, where they lodge in lung and mesothelium tissues, causing damage over time.


Across Canada, the number of diagnoses of mesothelioma has risen. Most recent statistics show an increase from 276 new cases in 1992 to 560 new cases in 2012.


Mesothelioma is aggressive and metastasizes quickly, but it takes decades from the time of exposure to the time that an accurate diagnosis can be made.

Unfortunately, most are diagnosed with mesothelioma when it is already at a late stage, and incurable.

Because of this long “in between” period and because asbestos has been heavily used in construction, shipbuilding, and other industrial applications, it is mostly older men diagnosed; numbers continue to rise as the effects of decades of asbestos use manifest.


Mesothelioma in Canada

Statistics and research show that the number of mesothelioma diagnoses in Canada has been rising.

Alberta has seen the highest increase in cases and projections. Nearly 1,500 Albertans will have died from pleural mesothelioma between 1980 and 2024.

Across Canada, the number of diagnoses of mesothelioma has risen. Most recent statistics show an increase from 276 new cases in 1992 to 560 new cases in 2012.


Mesothelioma Treatment and Symptoms

Mesothelioma is difficult to treat. In most cases, it has already spread or even metastasized by the time a diagnosis is made.

Most patients are older and in poor health that also limits treatment possibilities. For most mesothelioma patients, some combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery can slow the progression of the disease and reduce symptoms.

Pleural mesothelioma causes several symptoms, most commonly pain in the chest, shortness of breath, coughing, and pleural effusion, a buildup of fluid between the two pleural tissue layers.

Treatments used can also cause symptoms and side effects, such as fatigue, pain, nausea, vomiting, appetite and weight loss, anemia, decreased mobility, and many others.

Generally, living with cancer, and its treatments, can also cause depression and anxiety.


How physiotherapists can help you

We work with cancer patients for a variety of reasons, depending on your individual needs.

Physiotherapy can be an important complementary treatment to traditional procedures that work to shrink tumors.

Physiotherapy may involve helping a patient work on mobility, reducing a particular type of pain, or helping with weight loss to ease other symptoms.

Here are some of the top reasons physiotherapy can help with mesothelioma patients:

  • Mitigate treatment side effects. For some patients, the side effects of cancer treatment can be uncomfortable, painful and difficult to live with. Working with a physiotherapist to increase activity has helped patients reduce fatigue. Physiotherapists can also teach patients exercises to reduce pain levels and other side effects associated with cancer treatment.
  • Help you breathe more easily. Common symptoms of pleural mesothelioma are respiration, like coughing, shortness of breath, and painful breathing. Physiotherapists can help patients manage those symptoms through respiratory therapy. Exercises will be customized for each patient and can include airway exercises and breathing training.
  • Get you moving in beneficial ways. Being active is often the farthest thing from a cancer patient’s mind. Moving may be difficult, fatigue is usually an issue, as is pain when moving. However, physical activity improves outcomes for cancer patients. A physiotherapist will work with each patient’s limitations and abilities to best improve overall outcomes for cancer patients. Studies have shown that post-diagnosis physical activity reduces mortality in cancer patients as well as recurrence of the disease.
  • Doing physiotherapy helps boost your mood. Patients living with mesothelioma are naturally at risk for depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions. Working with a physiotherapist can help patients to reduce pain and fatigue, and increase mobility, among other benefits. Being more active is a proven mood booster. But for someone living with mesothelioma, it provides an outlet for powerful negative emotions and a way to regain some control over life.

There are so many research-backed reasons why mesothelioma and other cancer patients should consider working with a physiotherapist, and these are just a few of them.

Patients like Gerry report all kinds of benefits, from getting out the house and enjoying the social time with a therapist to being able to sleep better and more comfortably.

All of this comes together to provide cancer patients with an overall improved quality of life.



Virgil Anderson is a cancer patient at The National Cancer Institute and representative for In his battle against mesothelioma cancer, Virgil has overcome great adversity, surviving a disease with no known cure and very poor prognosis. For more information about Virgil, please email


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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.