doctor and elderly cancer patient

More than 15.5 million Americans have a history of cancer, and that­ a number continues to rise, according to the American Cancer Society.

“As the population ages, cancer rates increase,” says Maryanne Henderson, DO, medical director, UPMC Rehabilitation Institute. “But as research continues to improve, survivorship improves as well. Now that people are living longer, there’s a growing concern for their long-term care and quality of life.” Cancer rehabilitation programs across the country — including UPMC — are expanding to address that concern.

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How Cancer Rehabilitation Works

Cancer rehab, a subspecialty of physical medicine and rehabilitation, includes doctors called physiatrists who help people with cancer maintain or restore their quality of life and overall well-being. “For people living with chronic illness, simple tasks like walking, bathing, and dressing become challenging when they don’t have to be,” says Dr. Henderson.

Rehab is a proactive approach to cancer treatment. Cancer and its treatment can lead to a loss of function and other health issues. Engaging in rehab before, during, and after treatment can help limit the negative effects.

The rehab therapies recommended by your physiatrist are highly specialized to fit your unique needs. Your oncologist or surgeon and physiatrist work as a team, identifying the most appropriate physical, occupational, and speech therapies to provide you with complete care. Their recommendations consider your current health, possible side effects of cancer treatment, and the things that are most important to your quality of life. Rehabilitation specialists should meet with you when you’re first diagnosed, when you’re going through treatment, years after active treatment, and even toward the end of life.

Where Cancer Rehabilitation Fits in the Treatment Plan

Rehab can be prescribed at any point during your cancer journey. For example, you can begin physical therapy to improve your strength before surgery or start rehab after chemotherapy to treat a functional change.

Romer Orada, DO, assistant professor, UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, completed a cancer rehabilitation fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He recalls working with a patient who was scheduled to have breast cancer surgery. She had a prior shoulder injury that made it difficult to lift her arm over her head, a movement that would be even more difficult after surgery. Rather than waiting until after surgery, when the problem would be worse, she started physical therapy through the cancer rehab program prior to surgery. “If we didn’t address the existing impairment, her recovery after surgery would likely have been affected,” says Dr. Orada.

When you have a chronic disease such as diabetes along with cancer, you may experience a worsening of some side effects. For example, people with diabetes may already have neuropathy, which means there can be pain, tingling, and numbness in their arms and legs. Some types of chemotherapy can also cause neuropathy, which can worsen the problem and may lead to an increased risk of falls or injury. Including rehab in the treatment plan from the start can prevent existing problems from getting worse.

Cancer Rehabilitation Can Help You Return to the Activities You Love

One of the goals of cancer rehab is to help you continue doing the activities you enjoy. Dr. Henderson worked with a woman in her 70s who developed a frozen shoulder after breast cancer surgery. She also had balance issues from treatment and wasn’t able to swim, one of her favorite activities. After rehab therapy, she was able to return to swimming twice a week.

“The goal of cancer rehabilitation is to help patients tolerate treatment, prevent further complications, and maintain function so they can be as independent as possible,” says Dr. Orada.

To learn more about how rehab can improve your quality of life before, during, and after cancer treatment, visit the UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation or call 1-800-533-8762 to make an appointment.