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The Physical Impact of Cancer
Cancer and cancer treatment can impact your physical abilities and normal daily routine. You may experience changes in your physical mobility, posture, balance, speech, and/or bodily and reproductive functions. These changes can interfere with your ability to work and participate in your usual activities.
Naturally, it can be difficult to adjust to these changes. When your body looks, feels, and performs differently, it may also affect your self-image. It is important to find new ways to do things so you can maintain a good quality of life.
Staying Active During & After Cancer Treatment
If you feel like you don’t have enough energy to get through the day, the last thing you may want to do is exercise. However, any amount of activity (no matter how small) can help you regain lost strength, and may also help you better tolerate your cancer treatments. Also, inactivity can actually result in muscle wasting and loss of function, and can make you feel more tired.
Keep in mind that starting an exercise program during or after cancer treatment is not always recommended. It is important to consult with your healthcare team to figure out the level of exercise that works for you. For instance, during treatment, you may only be able to perform light exercise. Once treatment is complete, you may need to give your body some time to recover before beginning moderate exercise.
For people fighting cancer, staying physically active may help to:
- Increase energy, strength, and endurance
- Improve mood, attitude, and concentration
- Reduce pain and discomfort
- Boost self-esteem/self-image
- Improve sleep
- Reduce stress, anxiety, and depression
- Decrease fatigue
- Improve range of motion, flexibility, and balance
- Strengthen the immune system
- Promote feelings of empowerment
When fighting cancer, rehabilitation can help you adjust to any physical changes, regain your functional abilities and independence, and improve your overall quality of life. For instance, you may have difficulty moving your arms and legs, walking up and down the stairs, or performing everyday tasks. Cancer rehabilitation can help you conserve your energy and regain your strength so you can return to a more active and independent lifestyle.
The scope of cancer rehabilitation includes, but is not limited to, the following:
Physical therapy aims to help you restore your strength and improve your ability to be active and independent. Some goals of physical therapy are to reduce your pain, improve your mobility (e.g., walking, going up and down stairs, getting in and out of bed), and restore your physical performance of everyday activities. Physical therapists evaluate movement potential to help you establish an exercise plan with agreed upon goals. Depending on your situation, you may focus on flexibility, strength, endurance, coordination, posture, and/or balance.
Occupational therapy aims to help you live as independently as possible by working smart, not hard, in your own environment. Some goals of occupational therapy are to assist and train in performing Activities of Daily Living (ADLs), such as grooming, dressing, bathing, and eating. Occupational therapists study you as you interact with your day-to-day surroundings, assess your physical mobility, and teach you how to address, and adapt to, any physical limitations. They can help you identify those activities, tools, and assistive devices (e.g., walkers) that will help improve strength, function, and problem-solving.
Speech-language pathology aims to help improve your verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and resolve any swallowing problems that may limit your ability to eat and drink safely. Speech-language pathologists help with speech production, vocal production, language needs, concentration and memory problems, problem-solving abilities, swallowing difficulties, and other related problems.
Tips for Staying Active During & After Cancer Treatment
Choose activities that are right for you. Your ability to stay active depends on several factors, such as your treatment regime, cancer type, stamina, strength, medical condition, and past fitness level. Your healthcare team, including a rehabilitation therapist, can help you determine the type and level of physical activity that is safe and appropriate for you.
- Set short term and long term goals for yourself. Having clear goals can help you evaluate your progress, and recognize and reward your achievements. Try developing a written plan of short and long term goals and keep a record of your progress. Regular, light exercise (e.g., a 15-minute walk three times a week) can help you stay active, increase your energy and strength, and provide an overall sense of well-being.
- Start out slowly and build up gradually. You may be trying to keep up with your former routine, which can make you even more tired. It is important to start slowly and gradually increase your physical activity to a level that best suits you. Try shorter, easier versions of the activities you enjoy. Even a simple, low-intensity activity for a few minutes a day can help, and is usually better than no activity. Always begin and end your activities with light walking and gentle stretching exercises.
- Plan activities for when you're feeling best. Try to use your energy on the activities most important to you. You may find it helpful to incorporate activities into your daily routine during times when you feel best. Learn to conserve your energy by placing things you use often within easy reach. By performing activities at the right level, and at the right time, you can still have energy to do the things you enjoy.
- Take rest breaks in between activities. You don't have to do everything at one time. Spread out your activities to allow time for your body to rest and recover. Set aside time throughout the day to rest and take short naps in between activities. It is important to pace yourself. A slow to moderate pace uses less energy than a hurried one.
- Be creative and vary your activities. Choose activities you enjoy, such as walking, bicycling, gardening, dancing, and playing games with your children. You could use a treadmill or exercise bike while watching your favorite show on television. Relaxation techniques, massage, and other activities (e.g., Qi Gong, Reiki therapy) can also help reduce stress. Swimming is another option that is gentle on your joints.
- Know your limits. Listen to your body. If you can't carry on a conversation while you are exercising, you may be pushing yourself too hard. If you feel too tired, try to do 10 minutes of gentle stretching exercises in place of a walk. Remember to balance activity with rest. If you feel dizzy, short of breath, or chest pain or pressure, take a break and notify your healthcare team.
- Recruit support from others. Rehabilitation can be a long process. You may feel frustrated if results come slowly. It helps to get friends and family involved in your activities so they can offer their companionship and support along the way. Support groups can also help you understand that you are not going through this alone. As always, keep your healthcare team involved.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Cancer and cancer treatment often puts extra demands on your body for calories, nutrients, and fluids. Try to eat a well-balanced diet to give your body the energy it needs. If you are having difficulty eating, try frequent, small meals rather than large meals. It is also very important to stay hydrated. In addition, try to maintain a regular sleep schedule and address any distressing emotions you may be feeling.
- Think safety first. Always check with your healthcare team before beginning any physical activity. Depending on your condition, your doctor may want you to limit certain activities. For instance, if you have cancer that has spread to the bone, you may need to avoid using heavy weights or participating in activities that can increase your risk for falls or injury.
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS CONSULT WITH A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL BEFORE BEGINNING ANY CANCER REHABILITATION OR EXERCISE PROGRAM.
Oncology Rehabilitation at CTCA
At Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), we understand changes in your physical abilities caused by cancer and its treatment can be upsetting for you and your loved ones. The Oncology Rehabilitation Program at CTCA aims to help you maintain the energy you need to participate in activities that are meaningful to you.
Our integrated rehabilitation team at CTCA includes physical therapists (PTs), occupational therapists (OTs), speech-language pathologists, and massage therapists. Our therapists aim to help you reduce stress and regain your strength, energy, and independence.
When you arrive at a CTCA hospital, you will meet with a rehabilitation therapist prior to cancer treatment for a thorough physical evaluation. Part of this initial evaluation consists of a functional assessment, in which your therapist measures your ability to perform ADLs. Then, you and your therapist will work together to develop a personalized rehabilitation plan.
Your rehabilitation plan may consist of therapeutic exercises and neuromuscular training, as well as cardiovascular, flexibility, and strength training designed to meet your individual needs. Your plan will be goal-oriented, with well-defined outcomes. Sometimes your goals may be as simple as bathing, dressing yourself, or having enough energy to do something you have been missing, like playing with your children.
Throughout your treatment, your rehabilitation therapist will work closely with you and the other members of your care team to complement your traditional cancer treatments with rehabilitation therapies. You will also receive education to help you understand the physical and psychological benefits of physical restoration, and to help prepare you and your family for continuing the program at home.
At CTCA, we are here to help you take steps, no matter how big or small, towards a more active and fulfilling lifestyle.
I hope this information has helped you in some way. I will check in with you again next month. In the meantime, stay strong and hopeful.