Physical Therapy for Patients With Cancer

Maintaining Mobility When You Have Cancer

Woman with Triple Negative Breast Cancer
Phanie Burger

If you or a loved one has cancer, then you understand how it may affect all aspects of your life. A cancer diagnosis can be challenging, both emotionally and physically. Cancer may limit your ability to move properly, and it may make basic functional tasks like walking, standing, or moving in bed difficult.

If you have cancer, working with a physical therapist may be an excellent option to help you recover and maintain functional mobility as you are navigating your cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Common Functional Limitations Caused By Cancer

Cancer is an uncontrolled growth of harmful cells in your body. These cancerous cells replicate and multiply, and they often interfere with the function of normal cells. Cancer may affect various parts of your body. The most common types of cancers include:

  • Breast
  • Skin
  • Lung
  • Prostate
  • Bladder
  • Colon

Common treatments for cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. These treatments can help neutralize or destroy cancer cells, but they may also leave you with impairments and functional limitations, including:

  • Pain
  • Loss of strength
  • Loss of flexibility
  • Swelling in your arms or legs
  • Decreased endurance
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty walking
  • Decreased balance
  • Abnormal sensations in your hands or feet
  • Difficulty with bed mobility

If you have any of these impairments or feel like your functional mobility is compromised by your cancer diagnosis or treatment, ask your doctor if a course of physical therapy is appropriate for you.

Your physical therapist can assess your condition and offer treatments that can help you regain motion and mobility and improve your ability to perform your day-to-day tasks.

Physical Therapy For Patients With Cancer

If you have cancer, you may benefit from the skilled services of a physical therapist in various settings. Cancer treatment may occur in the hospital or in an outpatient center. If you are hospitalized, the hospital will likely have physical therapists on staff who can come to your room and provide treatment.

If you are receiving your cancer treatment in an outpatient facility, you will likely be staying at home during treatment. In that case, you may benefit from home physical therapy or from rehab in an outpatient physical therapy clinic.

In the Hospital

If your cancer diagnosis requires that you be hospitalized, you may have a physical therapist come to your hospital room for therapy. There, the therapist will be able to assess your condition and help you regain strength and mobility in order for you to safely return home when discharged.

The physical therapist can offer various treatments to help with your functional mobility. Common limitations that the therapist can help you regain may include:

  • Bed mobility
  • Transferring from your bed to a chair
  • Transferring from sitting to standing
  • Walking
  • Stair negotiation
  • Balance
  • Endurance

Your physical therapist may visit you multiple times per week to work on mobility. The ultimate goal is to ensure you regain enough strength and functional mobility to safely return home when it is time to leave the hospital.

Your therapist will also provide you with exercises to improve strength and range of motion that you can do in your hospital room between sessions. They will also work closely with your physicians in the hospital.

At Home

When you are home receiving your cancer treatment, you may benefit from having a home care physical therapist work with you. Your therapist will come to your house to assess your condition and provide treatment.

Your physical therapist will be able to assess your home and living situation and provide strategies to maximize your mobility around your house. Exercises will also be prescribed to help improve bed mobility, walking, and stair climbing.

Home physical therapy is typically reserved for patients who are unable to leave the house due to their condition or due to travel difficulty. If you are more mobile, you may not qualify for home therapy and will need to go to an outpatient physical therapy clinic for treatment.

In the Outpatient Clinic

If you are strong enough to travel a bit in your community but still require physical therapy for your cancer diagnosis, you may benefit from outpatient rehab. There, your physical therapist will assess your condition and offer strategies to improve strength, range of motion, and mobility.

One of the benefits of going to physical therapy in an outpatient clinic if you have cancer is that many clinics have specialized exercise equipment that can help you regain endurance and strength.

Exercises that you may do in outpatient physical therapy for cancer may include:

  • Biking
  • Treadmill walking
  • Elliptical
  • Stair climbing
  • Strength training

Your physical therapist may also use various treatment techniques to help decrease pain or swelling of tissues that may have occurred as a result of your cancer treatment. Treatment may include:

The goals of outpatient therapy for cancer are similar to those in other rehab settings: improve your strength, decrease pain, and improve overall functional mobility.

How Long Should Physical Therapy Take?

Most patients with a diagnosis of cancer can expect to work closely with a physical therapist for four to six weeks. After that time, you should expect to continue performing daily exercises to help maintain your endurance and mobility.

Some patients with more severe limitations may require longer episodes of care, and others who are not as impaired may be discharged from physical therapy in a few weeks.

Your physical therapist should work closely with your physicians and care team to ensure that everyone is on board with your rehab and functional mobility and discharge plans.

A Word From Verywell

A cancer diagnosis can be a scary thing, and it may cause specific functional limitations and impairments that affect your ability to move around safely. If that happens, you may benefit from physical therapy to help improve your pain-free mobility and help you return to your previous level of function.

Working with a physical therapist if you have a cancer diagnosis is a safe and effective treatment to get you back on your feet.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Cancer Institute. Common cancer types. Updated April 22, 2021.

  2. Hutchison NA, Deval N, Rabusch S, et al. Physical therapy–based exercise protocol for cancer patients: evaluating outcomes for cardiopulmonary performance and cancer‐related fatiguePM&R. 2019;11(11):1178-1183. doi:10.1002/pmrj.12128