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Physical Therapy for Patients with Cancer

by Athletico2 Comments

Physical therapists are medical professionals who specialize in using exercise to treat a variety of conditions. Physical therapists treat patients with post-surgical shoulders and knees, orthopaedic related pain; patients who have suffered a stroke, heart attack; patients who may have developmental delays or are at risk for frequent falls. Many people benefit from physical therapy with many different needs to be addressed. Patients who have cancer or who have had cancer in the past can also greatly benefit from physical therapy. Each and every one of us has been affected by cancer in some way, leading us to seek out the best treatment for ourselves or loved ones. Physical therapy is a great adjunct to treatment both, during or after cancer related treatments. 

Physical therapy for cancer patientsAccording to the British Journal of Cancer and the World Confederation of Physical Therapy, quality studies have noted a significant link to low physical activity and increased death from cancer. They have noted that moderate exercise reduces rate of death by 34% and improves the survival rate by 33%.1,2  Studies have shown that during cancer treatment, physical activity can improve upper and lower body strength and reduce fatigue.3  Another study showed a reduction in reoccurrence of cancer in women by 50% with exercise performed at least 3 hours per week.4

Studies clearly show a great link to the benefits of exercise for prevention and treatment for cancer related symptoms. Physical therapy may be a desired route of treatment for several additional reasons:

  • Cancer treatment may lead to overall reduction in energy level and muscle conditioning that a physical therapist can monitor on an individual basis to ensure safety and appropriate exercise intensity level.
  • Prolonged immobility that may occur during cancer treatment may lead to stiffness in many joints and muscles that the physical therapist may be able to address with stretching and manual techniques.
  • Physical therapists can assist in improving coordination and body awareness for prevention of falls from deconditioning that may occur with treatment.
  • Some cancer treatments may lead to orthopaedic related surgeries where physical therapy will work on mobility and strength after surgery.
  • Some physical therapists specialize in treatment of lymphedema, which may occasionally occur in patients after cancer related surgical techniques.
  • Physical therapists can work with you as a team to identify responses to exercise that would be expected with treatment versus those responses that may be abnormal and warrant referral back to your physician.

Each individual is unique in his or her response to illness, treatment, and overall experience when fighting cancer. Please consult with your physician prior to performing physical activity to allow optimal results for your personal needs.

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month:

*Cancer related side note: As a physical therapist I have my hands on each and every patient I treat.  Therefore I have the unique ability to view the skin of many parts of the body on each individual. In my 8 years as a therapist, I have assisted in identifying abnormalities in at least 10 patients that have led to the diagnosis of cancer. Half of these patients were diagnosed with skin cancer. This is a good reminder to check your skin for spots that may look irregular and to be seen by a dermatologist regularly to catch whatever may need to be caught early enough. When identifying a spot on an individual that leads me to recommend the patient get it checked out, I remember the ABCDE system.  For information on ABCDE go to:

Happy Exercising!


1.  Orsini N, Mantzoros C S et al. Association of physical activity with cancer incidence, mortality, and survival: a population based study of men. British Journal of Cancer. 2008 98:1864-1869

2.  World Confederation for Physical Therapy:

3.  Speck RM, Courneya KS et al. An update of controlled physical activity trials in cancer survivors: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J. Cancer Surviv. 2010 Jun;4(2):87-100.

4.  Holmes, MD, Chen WY et al. Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. JAMA 2005 293: 2479-2486.

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GeneralPhysical Therapyphysical therapy for cancer patients


  1. Dean Phillips

    My neighbor was recently diagnosed with cancer. She told me about a physical therapy cancer treatment. I had never heard of such a thing. I know that there are new treatments being tested and being used every day, but I had never heard about this. I did not know that while a cancer treatment might leave you with less energy that it was still important to get some exercise or that some types are better than others.

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