Rehabilitation

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2017

Cancer treatment may affect physical, social, psychological, and work-related abilities. Rehabilitation helps people regain these abilities and maintain independence.

Ask your health care team about local rehabilitation options. Many cancer centers and hospitals have on-site rehabilitation services.

How cancer rehabilitation can help

Rehabilitation can help you reach the following goals:

  • Improve physical strength. This can offset limitations caused by cancer and cancer treatment.

  • Increase your ability to care for yourself. This reduces the amount of support needed from caregivers.

  • Adjust to actual, perceived, and potential losses.

  • Reduce anxiety and depression.

  • Manage symptoms of cancer and its treatment. These may include fatigue, sleep problems, and pain.

  • Reduce hospital stays.

Cancer rehabilitation services

Rehabilitation services may include the following:

  • Patient and family education and counseling

  • Pain treatment

  • Nutrition counseling

  • Exercise programs

  • Support to quit smoking

In addition, some services help with daily activities such as:

  • Eating and drinking

  • Dressing, bathing, and using the toilet

  • Cooking

  • Doing basic chores

The cancer rehabilitation team

Depending on your needs, you may visit one or more specialists. These professionals are trained in specific areas of rehabilitation. Your health care team will help you adapt to changes. Changes due to cancer and cancer treatment may be temporary or permanent.

Your cancer rehabilitation team may include the following:

Oncologist. This doctor treats cancer. An oncologist may lead the cancer rehabilitation team.

Physiatrist. Also called a rehabilitation specialist, this doctor treats injuries and illnesses that affect how people move and function. Treatment may include pain management.

Rehabilitation nurse. This professional helps people regain physical abilities. Services may also include education and counseling.

Physical therapist. This professional helps patients improve physical strength and ability to move.

People experiencing the following challenges can benefit from physical therapy:

  • Muscle loss from long-term bed rest

  • Difficulty balancing

  • Dependence on a cane or other assistive device

  • Limitation in movement of specific body parts after surgery

Physical therapists may also help with some types of pain. For example, certain types of pain can be treated with ultrasound or specialized massages.

Occupational therapist. This professional provides methods and tools to increase function, comfort, and safety. Occupational therapists design a therapy plan specific to each patient. The plan is based on the layout of a home, school, or work place. Occupational therapists also teach methods to reduce effort for certain tasks. This helps patients manage fatigue and other limitations.

Lymphedema therapist. Lymphedema is fluid buildup from damage to lymph nodes. A certified lymphedema therapist can help manage this condition. Techniques include compression garments, specialized massages, bandaging methods, and exercises. 

Recreational therapist. This professional uses games, exercise, arts, crafts, or music. The goal is to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. People build confidence and strengthen personal skills through these activities.

Dietitian. This is a food and nutrition professional. A dietician may:

  • Help patients understand their special dietary needs.

  • Recommend diets or meal plans based on your cancer treatment.

  • Monitor body weight and changing dietary needs.

Mental health professionals. These may include psychologists and psychiatrists, among others. They address emotional, psychological, and behavioral needs. Such needs may be longstanding. Or they stem from the challenges of cancer and its treatment. Mental health professionals teach patients ways to cope with difficult circumstances. Psychiatrists are certified to prescribe medication.

Social worker. This professional provides a variety of services, including:

  • Counseling in the transition from the hospital to home. An example is providing home care.

  • Helping with coping skills and lifestyle changes.

  • Leading support groups.

  • Helping address financial concerns.

  • Linking patients and families to community resources.

Learn how a social worker can help.

Home health aide. This person helps with daily activities. These may include bathing, dressing, using the toilet, and moving around the home. Some home health aides provide more complex services under nurse supervision. Learn more about home health care.

Vocational counselor. This professional helps people find and keep satisfying jobs. Some patients’ physical or emotional changes may require a job change. In these cases, a vocational counselor can help.

Clergy member or chaplain. This professional may offer the following services:

  • Provide spiritual support

  • Perform religious rituals

  • Lead support groups

  • Give comfort in health crises

Most hospitals have clergy who work with people of all faiths. However, some people choose to engage their own clergy members.

Case manager. This professional helps design and monitor the cancer rehabilitation program. Case managers often facilitate coordination between the following people:

  • The person with cancer

  • The cancer rehabilitation team

  • The insurance provider

Speech-language pathologist (SLP). This professional specializes in communication and swallowing disorders. Swallowing disorders may result from treatment for head and neck cancers. An SLP helps patients regain oral motor skills. An SLP may also help patients with cognitive problems improve memory and organization skills.

Related Resources

More Information

LIVESTRONG: Rehabilitation After Cancer