Cancer rehabilitation

  • Wednesday, August 20, 2014


With the advances in medical care, we are seeing increasingly more effective treatments of cancer, meaning that individuals are surviving forms of cancer that were previously not treatable.

The good news means that survivors have the potential to enjoy friends, family and productive work careers. However, the treatments, such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, can often cause significant short- and long-term problems for survivors.

After completing treatment, many are left with impairments that can limit function, cause pain and increase the risk of injury.

These include loss of endurance, strength, balance, mobility, muscular or joint pain, lymphedema, and problems with speech and communication and swallowing and eating.

Rehabilitation care, specifically physical, occupational and speech therapy, is integral to cancer recovery and can address these problems.

Rehabilitation professionals can help address temporary and permanent impairments and limitations that follow such treatment.

Physical therapists can help promote strength and mobility by developing treatment plans that address strength, flexibility, balance, endurance, and coordination and ambulation.

Physical therapists also can recommend walking aides or other equipment that can be used for safe mobility.

If pain is a problem, physical therapists may utilize pain modalities, such as heat/cold applications and electrical stimulation.

Occupational therapists provide input and assistance with self-care and home-care activities such as bathing, dressing and grooming.

If poor endurance and fatigue are an issue, occupational therapists can provide strategies to overcome or manage fatigue and stress.

This can promote prioritization and safe progression of activities and improve coping strategies for managing the stress and problems that many times result from cancer treatment.

Both physical and occupational therapists can play a role in treating and managing lymphedema, a condition of fluid retention and swelling that can develop in an extremity after certain cancers or treatment.

Treatments include manual techniques to help decrease the swelling, as well as wrapping and fitting for custom garments. Individuals with lymphedema should limit certain activities and follow a strict regimen of specific exercises, which can be recommended by a therapist.

When the effects of cancer or treatment affect swallowing or speech, a consultation with a speech therapist can be beneficial.

A speech language pathologist can help with strategies to improve strength or supplement communication in individuals who experience vocal weakness or loss of speech.

If the ability to swallow is impaired or lost, so is the ability to obtain necessary calorie intake. A speech language pathologist can work with patients and family to address these problems.

Rehabilitation professionals can be integral to assessing treatment needs and developing strategies to improve function and return to a safer and more active lifestyle.

Patients and family should consult with their physician to see if physical, occupational and/or speech therapy are appropriate for their condition and problems.

Dargan Ervin is a physical therapist with NextStep Services, part of the Georgetown Hospital System.

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