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The Benefits of Physical Rehabilitation for a Person with Cancer (Part 1)

The Benefits of Physical Rehabilitation for a Person with Cancer (Part 1)

Hearing the dreaded diagnosis of cancer is something no one wishes to hear. Many questions come along with it… What kind? How bad? How long do I have? What do I do now?

What can physical therapy do for you?

While you and your oncologist are going to be at the forefront of how to treat your cancer directly, if you chose to go that route, it is worthwhile to note that there are other/additional treatment options to treat you as a whole person too. This is where physical therapy (PT) can play a role. While PT is not appropriate to treat cancer itself directly, it absolutely can be appropriate to treat the body and person that the cancer is affecting. Cancer and conventional cancer treatments can cause pain, fatigue, anxiety, and mood disturbances, among other things.

Pain management

Pain is the most commonly reported symptom of cancer, affecting 50-90% of those diagnosed.2 A rehabilitation professional can address mild to moderate joint and muscle pain through physical agents, when appropriate, such as thermotherapy (heat), cryotherapy (cold), massage, electrical stimulation, immobilization, biofeedback, relaxation techniques, and exercise.2

Fatigue management

Cancer-related fatigue, a distressing, persistent, and subjective sense of tiredness or exhaustion related to cancer or cancer treatment is perceived by many to be more distressing than pain or nausea and vomiting.2 It has been shown that aerobic exercise and physical activity can reduce fatigue, improve energy level and stamina, and increase daily activities without increasing fatigue.2

Staying active

Other harsh side effects that can come with cancer treatments may include weakness, little to no appetite that could lead to malnutrition, poor endurance, neuralgias (numbness/tingling), constipation or diarrhea, and cognitive issues. Additionally, cancer can rightfully cause emotional changes such as anxiety, stress, depression, and mood swings. Again, exercise can be used to combat all of these symptoms and side effects.

What does the research say?

Studies examining the therapeutic value of exercise of people with various cancers during primary cancer treatment suggest that exercise is safe and feasible.2 By reducing symptoms and improving strength and endurance through appropriate exercise, you can counter the effects of the disease and medication interventions, subsequently helping improve physical functioning and mood disturbances and, hence, overall quality of life.

Research has shown exercise to:

  • Improve lung function4
  • Improve heart function1
  • Improve blood pressure regulation (orthostatic hypotension {when your blood pressure drops with positional changes, causing lightheadedness or fainting} can be a side effect of cancer treatments)2
  • Improve anxiety, stress, and depression1
  • Improve fatigue2
  • Improve circulation, which could improve neuropathy1,3
  • Improve appetite2
  • Improve insulin sensitivity (so that your body is more efficient at using the nutrients you provide it)1
  • Improve bone mineral density (osteoporosis, low bone mineral density, can be a side effect of cancer and cancer treatments)1
  • Improve lymphatic system draining (lymphedema can occur if lymph nodes are removed or affected)3
  • Improve safety by decreasing fall risk1
  • Improve overall quality of life2

If your doctor hasn’t already mentioned it, ask him/her about a referral for physical therapy so that you may get one-on-one attention and education on an exercise and therapeutic program with a licensed professional.

Read the second part of Dr. Hegarty’s article, The Benefits of Physical Rehabilitation for a Person with Cancer (Part 2)

  1. “Benefits of Exercise.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 5 Jan. 2018,
  2. Goodman, C. C., & Fuller, K. S. (2009). Pathology: Implications for the Physical Therapist (Third ed.). St. Louis: Saunders.
  3. O'Sullivan, Susan B., and Thomas J. Schmitz. Physical Rehabilitation. Fifth ed., F.A. Davis Company, 2007.
  4. “Your Lungs and Exercise.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2016,


  • Daniel Malito moderator
    1 year ago

    @christina-hegarty I have been in PT on and off for many years. I can definitely attest to the fact that it helps. I have had so many injuries and surgeries that have healed and gotten moving much faster with PT. Even if I can’t go and I just do it myself at home with light weights or something, I know it helps. Thanks for sharing! Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Christina Hegarty author
    1 year ago

    Hi Daniel,
    I’m so glad PT has been such a success for you! That’s great that you take the initiative to continue therapy on your own even when you don’t go to a formal PT session—for your own health and benefit! PT as something that can be taught and carried forward is what I love about it. Thank you so much for your comment!
    Well wishes,

  • Yolanda Brunson-Sarrabo moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi Christina, Thank you for a great piece! I totally agree with the research of what exercise can do for the body, as it has been a light to my journey. Of course, everyone is so different but to consider the possibilities in light exercise may go hand in hand with chemotherapy treatment.

  • Christina Hegarty author
    1 year ago

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Yolanda, and that exercise has been such a light in your life! Thank you so much for your comment!

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