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Cancer Rehabilitation Can Improve Life After Cancer

Michelle Watilo, an occupational therapist and certified lymphedema therapist at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, Washington.

The ever-growing population of cancer survivors brings a new group of patients who need help dealing with lasting physical effects of cancer treatment. Help is available from a multidisciplinary group of therapists – experts in physical and occupational therapy, as well as speech/language pathology – who work with the cancer treatment team. We call it “cancer rehabilitation.”

Gain Tools to Help Before, During and After Treatment

Cancer rehabilitation helps cancer patients and survivors maximize their physical, social, psychological and vocational abilities within the limits created by the cancer and treatment.

It can be helpful before, during and after treatment. Rehabilitation before treatment is largely preventive. Patients learn about potential risks associated with their disease and treatment. It helps them prepare for and reduce the impact of treatment through exercises, precautions and/or techniques to battle fatigue or swelling – valuable tools for patients and families at the start of their treatment process.

The second type of cancer rehabilitation is restorative. Patients who’ve completed treatment may have limitations that impact daily activities or overall quality of life. These may include a decreased range of motion or pain due to tightness from scar tissue or radiation, abnormal swelling in an area of the body (known as lymphedema), or lingering fatigue or cognitive issues from medications. Rehabilitation often can help improve these conditions and the person’s overall quality of life.

Another type of cancer rehabilitation is supportive. It’s similar to restorative, but the patients receive therapy at the same time they’re receiving cancer treatment.

The final type is palliative, also known as comfort care. Therapy focuses on management of pain, training caregivers and family members, and providing education about the kinds of equipment available to help patients remain as independent as possible.

Through every stage of preparation, treatment and recovery, cancer rehabilitation plays an important role in helping patients maintain as much dignity and normalcy as possible. It also helps them achieve a higher quality of life as cancer survivors.

There are other significant benefits of activity and therapy, as well. A study of breast and colon cancer patients showed that regular exercise decreased the rate of cancer reoccurring by up to 50 percent.

Wide-ranging Care Helps Increase Quality of Life

With a comprehensive oncology team that includes medical staff as well therapists, social workers and nutritionists, cancer rehabilitation can increase the quality of life for cancer survivors, as well as help reduce symptoms, decrease recurrence risks and increase survival rates.

But, sometimes, patients are hesitant to “complain” or discuss physical or functional limitations with their oncologist. Sometimes, they’re just grateful and feel like it’s “enough” to just be getting treatment. Don’t be afraid to speak up. If you think you or a loved one might benefit from cancer rehabilitation, be sure to ask your doctor for a referral to a cancer rehabilitation program in your area.

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