How do balance issues affect cancer patients?

Good balance is vital to day-to-day life. Balance, or the body’s ability to remain stable while standing, sitting or moving about, is important in preventing injuries from falls or missteps. The vestibular system of the inner ear is critical to good balance, as is the cerebellum, or the rear part of the brain stem that controls and regulates muscle movement. Chemotherapy drugs, pain medications and other interventions, as well as cancers of the head, neck or nervous system, may affect the vestibular system or the cerebellum. Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy may also result in balance issues.

Balance problems may show up in a number of ways for cancer patients, including as:

  • An altered pace or irregular step
  • The need for canes or other aids to support a steady gait or stance
  • Erratic or slow steps, or unusual clumsiness
  • Falls
  • Lethargy or tired feeling that prevents the ability to perform everyday tasks
  • Dizziness or light-headedness, especially while standing
  • Vertigo, an extreme form of dizziness that causes the feeling of movement, as if the room is spinning

How likely are cancer patients to experience balance issues?

Nervous system side effects such as dizziness, vertigo and balance issues are common in cancer patients for a variety of reasons, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The symptoms may lead to a cancer diagnosis, or they may appear after treatment. The increased pressure caused by brain tumors, for example, is a common cause of balance control issues in patients, according to the American Cancer Society. Poor balance may also result from reductions or changes in chemotherapy drugs and/or dosage, and may be a common reaction to chemotherapy treatments and prescription medications.

How may integrative care help?

Managing balance problems often requires treating the underlying cause.The supportive care services that may help include:

Oncology rehabilitation

Oncology rehabilitation therapists may use a combination of physical therapy, occupational therapy and other techniques to improve patient mobility and stability. Balance training in physical therapy is three-dimensional, addressing visual, vestibular (equilibrium) and perception implications. Therapists may find that adaptive equipment, such as a walker, cane or shower chair, may help improve the safety and function of patients struggling to regain balance control.

Learn more about oncology rehabilitation