How to Stay Safe and Independent During Cancer Treatment

August 14, 2019
Sharon Leslie, PT, DPT

Sharon Leslie is a physical therapist specializing in cancer rehabilitation and cancer survivorship. Her work includes educating people on the importance of rethinking the paradigm of cancer care to include a return to a healthy, sustainable, and active lifestyle. She is a panelist on the Cancer.Net Editorial Board.

When it comes to coping with cancer treatment, older adults have a unique set of needs. If you’re age 65 or up, there are several steps that you and your caregivers can take to help make the treatment process easier and safer.share on twitter

Reduce your fall risk

Older adults are at a greater risk for falls in the home. Side effects of cancer treatment, including dizziness, fatigue, decreased balance, and muscle weakness, can increase this risk even more. Studies show that 30% to 50% of falls in older adults are due to environmental causes, such as poor lighting, slippery floors, and uneven surfaces. To avoid injury, it’s important to:

  • Clear away clutter. Make sure that you have clear, wide paths to walk in your home. Decrease clutter and get rid of things that you could easily trip over. Do not leave shoes or other items around the house.

  • Think about lighting. Ensure that the lighting in your living spaces is bright enough for you to see clearly during the day and night. Dimly lit areas are hard to navigate and can increase your risk of falling.

  • Make nighttime bathroom trips safer. A common time that older adults fall is walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night. When you first awaken, take a minute to sit at the edge of the bed before you get up to find out if you are dizzy or lightheaded. Once you are steady enough to get up, make sure you have a well-lit path. Don’t try to walk to the bathroom in the dark, especially late at night. Consider having a walker or cane by your bed to assist you, even if you don’t use one during the day. The extra stability will help when you feel drowsy or weak.

  • Install grab bars and rails. To make your home easier to navigate independently and safely, consider installing grab bars in the bath, shower, and toilet area. Do not try to use a towel rack as a grab bar, as they are not strong enough to hold your body weight. A shower chair can also help if balance is a challenge during your cancer treatment. Having secure grab rails on both sides of any stairs in your home can help you continue to use those stairs independently.

  • Wear safe footwear. Certain kinds of footwear can affect your balance or cause you to trip. Avoid flip-flops and high heels. Also, don’t walk around in socks. The best footwear is a well-fitting shoe with a low or flat heel and a quality grip or tread on the sole. Wear this type of shoe in and out of the house.

Make the most of your appointments

You will have many appointments throughout your cancer experience. These tips can help you make the most of them, manage your care effectively, and get important information about any support that you may need:

  • Make sure you have transportation to and from your appointments.

  • Bring someone with you to take notes.

  • Discuss any medications you take and their possible interactions with cancer medications.

  • Ask how cancer treatment might affect any other health conditions you have.

  • Get a clear idea of who is on your medical team and how the members work together to manage your complete health.

  • Ask how cancer treatment might impact your memory.

  • Discuss how cancer treatment might impact your ability to live independently, either temporarily or for longer periods.

Get the help you need

As an older adult, your cancer treatment can sometimes make it hard to do things on your own. You may also have other medical issues to manage. That’s why caregivers are vital to your independence and health. A caregiver can help you:

  • Prepare for potential emergencies. Having a caregiver or medical support person help you prepare for an emergency can give you peace of mind and set you up for a quick response if you need assistance. Together, create a plan that gives you easy access to a phone or a medical alert device at all times. Add easy-to-find contacts on your phone for your doctor, 911, and your caregivers or family members. It is also a good idea to create a medication system or checklist that makes sense to you and to your caregivers.

  • Maintain good nutrition. Maintaining good nutrition is a key part of cancer treatment. One of the most helpful things caregivers and friends can do is to provide you healthy meals and food. These are often called meal trains. If you have special dietary needs or restrictions because of other health issues, such as diabetes or heart disease, it’s especially important that you pay attention to your nutrition and ask for help if you need it. If your budget allows, there may be meal delivery services in your area.

  • Do daily activities. You may need help with shopping, errands, cleaning, and other household activities. Consider having others do these tasks so you can conserve your energy for activities you enjoy, such as spending time with family and friends or exercising.

  • Set up check-ins. If you live alone, consider having someone check in on you regularly, both in person and by phone. If you feel that you are not able to be alone during certain phases of treatment, ask a family member to come stay with you. You can also hire a temporary caregiver to be there during those times. 

Stay active

Exercise is a vital part of cancer treatment and recovery for older adults. It can help you maintain your independence throughout cancer treatment and beyond. Having strong muscles is the key to staying mobile and active. Maintaining your strength during treatment will help decrease your risk for falls and keep your energy up.

Light exercise, such as daily walking, can help fight fatigue and other treatment side effects and has been shown to be safe for people with cancer. Even people who are less mobile can benefit from exercise, whether it be balance training, bed and chair exercises, or walking with an assistive device for support. Activity, even in small amounts, can make a big difference. 

A physical therapist working with you in a clinic or in your home during treatment can help you stay strong and teach you to safely navigate your home. Also, consider walking, tai chi, and swimming as ways to maintain and build muscle strength and balance. Ask your doctor for recommendations of exercise programs in your area geared toward people with cancer and older adults. There is more information about the importance of exercise on the Cancer.Net Blog.


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