Cancer, and the treatments for it, can cause physical problems such as pain, numbness, swelling, weakness, loss of balance, and difficulty moving or walking. With help from a physical therapist, exercise can benefit many cancer-related problems. Andrea Avruskin, PT, DPT lists ways your physical therapist may work with you in order to improve:
- Comfort and well-being. 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.
- CoordinationYour 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.
- Reduce stress Exercising during cancer treatment can help ward off anxiety, fear, and depression.
- Improve the survival rate Research studies have suggested that consistent exercise during cancer treatment may have beneficial effects that improve the outcome of that treatment.
- Assist athletes to continue sports training Athletes undergoing cancer treatment may not have to give up their sport. A physical therapist can help design a special exercise plan that includes an athlete’s chosen sport, a modified version, or aspects of it.