What & Why

Role of Physiotherapy in Cancer Rehabilitation

It is estimated that 1 in 2 people will develop cancer at some point in their lifetime. It is no surprise that each of us will likely experience or know someone who is or has been affected by cancer. Cancer manifests when normal cells change as they divide and grow in an uncontrollable way. Depending on the aggressiveness of the cancer, it can spread to other parts of the human body. Apart from the primary tumour, secondary tumours, also known as metastases, can form in other areas of the human body as they spread through the bloodstream or to neighbouring areas.

There are currently several different treatments for cancer, which would include immunotherapy, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, hormone therapy, stem cell transplant, precision medicine, and surgery. Most cancer patients will have a combination of treatments to effectively remove the cancerous tumours from the body. No matter the method, the patients’ immune system will be compromised as procedures tend to be invasive. 

Cancer Rehabilitation

Due to advancements in technology and treatment, the numbers of cancer survivors are increasing. Cancer and its treatment can take a toll on one’s health, function and well-being causing a range of physical and emotional symptoms. These long-lasting symptoms may arise during treatment or even years later: 78% of people experience at least one of these symptoms in the 12 months following medical procedures. These issues can be addressed through rehabilitation to address the side effects of recovery and cancer treatment. Cancer rehabilitation is created with the patient in mind to help improve function, pain, and the daily living of these survivors.

The four varieties of cancer rehabilitation are as follows:

  1. Preventative: Usually takes place before and during cancer treatment and aims to reduce the impact of expected disabilities or side effects of cancer.
  2. Restorative: Usually takes place after cancer treatment with a goal to return patient to pre-illness level of daily function without side effects
  3. Supportive: This form of cancer rehabilitation takes place during and after disease especially if the cancer is aggressive. The goal with this form of cancer rehabilitation is to limit functional loss and provide support during cancer treatment.
  4. Palliative: This rehabilitation aims to eliminate or reduce complications to manage symptoms. 

What makes oncology physiotherapy different? 

While musculoskeletal physiotherapy (MSK) helps people with sporting injuries or sore necks, backs, or knees etc., oncology physiotherapy leverages in-depth understanding of various cancer procedures to relieve side-effects caused by these treatments. The physiotherapy session is completed either in a one-to-one room or rehabilitation space and uses various physiotherapy techniques such as hands-on treatment, rehabilitation-based exercise, and pilates. It is important to seek an appointment with an oncology-trained physiotherapist because they have an in-depth understanding of cancer treatment and the associated side-effects. With this knowledge they apply MSK physiotherapy skills to the cancer patient to the treatment programme. 

Purpose of oncology physiotherapy

Going through oncology treatment can be excruciatingly tiring for a cancer patient. The patient will often be exhausted due to the compromised immune system. Patients can experience a variety of different symptoms such as nerve damage, weakening of bones, or even muscular degeneration. It is often very common for patients to experience cancer related fatigue (CRF), arthralgia, breathlessness etc. CRF symptoms can vary among patients; however, there is a persistent theme of lack of energy, affected sleep, and mood swings. Arthralgia, also known as joint pain, is dealt with by physiotherapy management such as various exercise programmes. Oncology physiotherapy is a type of rehabilitation that focuses on the individual’s specific symptoms and aims to reduce side-effects from cancer treatment. Oncology physiotherapy can appear in many different methods, ranging from stretches to reformer pilates. This is beneficial to the cancer patient because physical activity has shown to improve the quality of life for the patient. No matter what form of physical activity, it will improve the individual’s daily functioning irrespective of the stage, timing, or type of cancer.


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