What is the Role of Physical Therapy in Cancer Recovery?
When someone is undergoing cancer treatment, physical therapy may not be the first healthcare field that comes to mind. Early cancer treatment is met with oncologists, radiologists, nurses and surgeons. Rightly so, as these healthcare practicioners are essential to the treatment and management of cancer. However, you should also consider the role of physical therapy in your cancer recovery. Cancer rehabilitation is a growing area in medicine due to the increase in cancer survivorship. More and more individuals are beating cancer because of advances in medical technology, treatment and early detection.
Cancer treatment is a grueling course, leaving many people exhausted, weak and with a compromised immune system. Just getting out of bed can be a huge and daunting task, let alone exercising in a gymnasium or playing at the park with grandchildren. This is where a physical therapist comes in. Despite advances in medical treatments, individuals that receive cancer treatments typically experience extensive physical limitations during and after treatments. These limitations include and are not limited to cancer-related fatigue (CRF), pain, nerve damage, lymphedema, deconditioning, as well as incontinence.
There is strong evidence to support conservative management of these impairments through physical therapy. As each individual experiences different impairments during and after cancer treatment, it is important to have an individualized evaluation to focus your rehabilitation. Physical therapy can address common cancer-related impairments including:
Lymphedema: Effective lymphedema management is accomplished through manual lymph drainage, range of motion exercises, aerobic exercise, and lymphatic bandaging.
CRF: Individualized aerobic training, strength training and functional management training is known to reduce effects of cancer related fatigue both during and after medical cancer treatments.
Pain: There are many pain relief strategies that can reduce the intensity and frequency of pain after cancer treatment. Specifically, treatment strategies including soft tissue mobilization, therapeutic massage, modalities, therapeutic stretching and strengthening.
Peripheral neuropathy: Often times, cancer survivors experience peripheral neuropathy, which is abnormal nerve function that can be experienced as pain, numbness and tingling. Physical therapy can help to improve nerve function or compensate for nerve dysfunction.
Deconditioning: Rebuilding endurance for activities and cardiovascular function can be difficult during and after cancer treatment. A skilled physical therapist is able to educate and monitor cardiovascular endurance training.
Genitourinary complications: For men undergoing treatment for prostate cancer and women undergoing treatment for bladder or ovarian cancer, incontinence and sexual dysfunction are common. A skilled physical therapist can help to rebuild the strength of the pelvic floor in order to improve urinary continence and reduce pain related to sexual function.
In a recent study published April 2015 in Physical Therapy Journal, researchers found that physical therapy services are more commonly sought out for individuals surviving breast and genitourinary cancers. Researchers sought to find the characteristics of patients with cancer that were referred for outpatient physical therapy and common clinical findings. This study shows that therapy services are being utilized for individuals that have survived cancer, particularly breast and genitourinary cancer. However, this study also suggests that a large portion of cancer survivors are not seeking out rehabilitation services, even though they would likely find it highly beneficial.
The good news is that it is never too late to utilize rehabilitation services for cancer recovery. If you find that you are having trouble accomplishing daily tasks or functioning at your prior level of independence, seek out a rehabilitation expert and regain your vitality.
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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.