Physical Therapy Can Help Cancer Survivors Improve Long-Term Outcomes

One of the side-effects of our human species’ current tendency to have exponentially longer life-spans in comparison to our ancestors from several generations ago is that the incidence of cancer is much higher. Statistics are sobering: according to the American Cancer Society, over 1.6 million new cases of cancer are expected in the United States for 2016. Cancer is currently the 2nd most common cause of death in the United States – just behind heart disease. Breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men are the most common sites of new cancer diagnoses. Approximately 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. And about 1 man in 7 will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point during their lives.

Lots of research is currently targeted towards improving treatment options for cancer, and we are making steady gains in our ability to manage and sometimes eradicate the disease. However, often cancer care involves harsh treatment interventions – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and various types of medication – all of which are known to take a great physical toll on a patient’s body. Common side effects of these treatments include pain, fatigue, swelling at surgical sites, lymphedema, loss of appetite and energy, and stiffness or loss of motion in joints affected by the disease. The result of these side effects is often that cancer patients find themselves limited in activities that were previously normal for them – from being able to reach to accomplish dressing and household tasks, to having sufficient stamina to accomplish errands or exercise activity.

Physical therapy can help cancer patients to address all of these associated issues of cancer care that negatively impact their physical function. And, in fact, besides assisting patients in regaining normal activity tolerance, it is possible that physical therapy can help cancer survivors to improve their long-term outcomes after cancer treatment.

A recent article reviewed by the on-line journal PT in Motion and published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine (Br J Sports Med. 2016 Mar;50(6):339-45. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2015-094927. Epub 2015 Sep 18) has found that cancer survivors that undertook high levels of physical activity after their diagnosis reduced their mortality rate by 22%. This study also looked at the mortality rates from cancer in general populations – meaning people that had not been diagnosed with cancer prior to the start of the study. It was found that people that participated in at least a minimal level of moderate-intensity exercise each week (2.5 hours, for this study) had a 13% reduction in cancer mortality rate. These mortality rates continued to decrease as the quantity of physical activity increased.

Besides potentially reducing mortality rate, increasing one’s level of physical activity has many other more immediately appreciable benefits – both for patients going through cancer treatment and for the general public as well. Moderate-intensity exercise can help to improve stamina, regulate sleep patterns, improve mood and mental clarity, and potentially – when activity is performed with a physical therapist coach and / or with a buddy or peer group – promote a social support structure. Physical therapists can watch their patients during activity for signs and symptoms of other conditions that may affect a person’s tolerance for exercise activity. If potential problems are present, a physical therapist can intervene with manual therapy interventions that address joint and muscle issues, or with other treatments that can eliminate or manage pain or improve the condition of the various musculoskeletal tissues that are potentially causing difficulty.

So the take-home message from this study would be “Get Moving”! Physical activity has the potential to extend your life expectancy. Whether or not you have a diagnosis or a family history of cancer, your life and life span would likely be positively impacted by adopting healthy exercise habits. Learning to get moving under the supervision of a physical therapist, who can provide guidance as to how to appropriately introduce and progress moderate-intensity activity while also addressing any issues (such as joint stiffness or pain) that might be limiting activity, is a great way to safely and positively influence physical health.

If you or a family member has been affected by cancer and its treatment, physical therapy may be able to help to restore a healthy lifestyle. Symmetry Physical Therapy would be glad to be a resource for information, support, and encouragement. If you have any questions about your particular situation, we hope that you’ll be in touch.