What Is Cancer Rehabilitation?

January 14, 2020
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 an Advisory Panelist on the Cancer.Net Editorial Board.

It can be confusing for people diagnosed with cancer to figure out how to regain function and strength during and after treatment. In addition, some people feel uncomfortable or unsure about how to ask their doctors or medical team for this type of advice. Cancer rehabilitation and exercise play an important part in helping you return to work, home life, and regular activities during and after treatment. Cancer rehabilitation helps you stay as active as possible and empowers you to participate in work, family, and other life roles. It also helps lessen the side effects and symptoms of the cancer and its treatment and can improve your overall quality of life.

How do I know if I need cancer rehabilitation?

Talk with your health care team about cancer rehabilitation any time you notice a change in symptoms that makes you less active or makes everyday tasks harder. Here are some signs that you may need rehabilitation services:

  1. Having more trouble getting around

  2. Experiencing pain, weakness, or swelling

  3. Having trouble with physical or mental activities around the house or at work

  4. Having trouble participating in hobbies or your usual exercise routine

  5. Having a hard time doing things you used to do

  6. Feeling tired on a regular basis

  7. Feeling unsure about how to safely exercise during or after treatment

Be aware of the subtle changes in your health and in your body. Recognize early symptoms of problems and talk to your medical team about them so you can get help as soon as possible. Ideally, you want to be seen early in your treatment so any possible physical problems associated with your treatment plan can be found early and treated.   

What should I expect from cancer rehabilitation?

The goal of this type of rehab is for you to return to a pain-free, active lifestyle following cancer. This can include working with a variety of different kinds of therapists, depending on your needs. A physical therapist will focus on your mobility, decreasing pain and physical limitations, and a return to daily function. An occupational therapist might focus on getting you back into your activities at home and at work. You may also see a speech pathologist for issues with swallowing and/or speech. Learn more about the different types of professionals and how they can help you.

When you make your first rehabilitation appointment, consider asking the following questions:

  • Is the rehabilitation specialist I am seeing trained and experienced in treating people with cancer or cancer survivors?

  • What should I expect from my first appointment?

  • Does my insurance company cover this type of care by this provider?

  • Will any tests be done?

  • How long will my appointment last?

Your rehabilitation care team will ask you questions and evaluate you for physical and mental challenges, pain, weakness, fatigue, and previous levels of activity and function. They will also address any challenges you may be having at work and at home. Then, they will work with you to develop a treatment plan for your rehabilitation appointments and for work to do at home to help with your recovery.

It is always helpful to bring a written list of concerns to your first appointment. Some people only need to be seen a few times, while others will be seen over a longer period of time, depending on your needs. But talking with your care team and creating a plan for recovery can be the first step toward living a more comfortable, active life after treatment.


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