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Column: Rehabilitation key to improving cancer survivor’s quality of life

When fighting cancer, physical therapy may not be the first health care service that comes to mind.

Successful cancer treatment involves a health care team approach, including oncologists, radiologists, nurses, surgeons, social workers, and as you transition to survivorship, physical and occupational therapists.

More people are surviving cancer than ever before, thanks to early detection and advancements in cancer treatment. While this is great news, cancer treatment can be hard on the body.

Rehabilitation is key to improving a survivor’s quality of life, promoting optimal function, and diminishing the side effects of cancer treatment.

Effects of cancer treatment

Cancer treatment is a grueling course, leaving many people exhausted, weak, and with a compromised immune system. Despite advances in medical treatments, individuals that receive cancer treatments typically experience extensive physical limitations during and after treatments.

Treatment side effects can include pain, fatigue, damage to the heart and lungs, nerve damage, weight gain or loss, cognitive changes, mood changes including anxiety and depression, bone loss, muscle loss, scarring, and lymph congestion.

Sadly, rehabilitation is often overlooked as part of cancer treatment. In one 2013 study in ACS Journals, 90% of patients with cancer were identified as requiring rehabilitation services yet only 5-20% had been referred.

When integrated in a patient’s treatment plan, physical, occupational, speech, and mental health therapists all play a role in preventing cancer treatment side effects, managing changes throughout treatment, and restoring a person to maximum functional levels when treatment is complete.

Physical activity in cancer treatment

Returning to physical activity following cancer treatment can be challenging, however, it is a powerful tool in a survivor’s treatment.

Affecting nearly all body systems, physical activity helps build bone and muscle, reduce fatigue, manage weight, and reduce depression and anxiety. Exercise also can assist with pain management, improve mobility of scars, and improve lymph flow.

A report of the 2018 American College of Sports Medicine International Multidisciplinary Roundtable on Physical Activity and Cancer Prevention and Control concluded that exercise training and testing are generally safe for cancer survivors and that every survivor should maintain some level of physical activity.

The roundtable also found strong evidence that moderate-intensity aerobic training and/or resistance exercise during and after cancer treatment can reduce anxiety, depressive symptoms, and fatigue and improve health-related quality of life and physical function and some evidence that exercise is beneficial for bone health and sleep quality.

Studies show that only 30% of cancer survivors meet the national exercise guidelines of 150 minutes per week of moderate cardiovascular exercise.

This lack of exercise is attributed to other health risks including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and osteoporosis.

It starts with a conversation

When undergoing treatment, physical activity is probably one of the last things on your mind, but because of the benefits it’s important to have a conversation concerning your activity level with your provider. Your provider, along with a physical therapist, can help you develop an activity plan designed to your needs and abilities. They can prescribe the best type, intensity, and frequency of activity to help your return to an active lifestyle as a survivor.

Shari Berthold, DPT, is a physical therapist with Pain Management and Rehabilitation Services at UPMC Williamsport. For more information, visit UPMCSusquehanna.org/Rehab.

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