Physical Therapy Helps Cancer Patients Restore Function

Oct 25

Physical Therapy for Cancer Patients - Drayer Physical TherapyBy Kayla M. Attig, DPT, Enola Center

A cancer diagnosis of any sort is a life-changing occurrence that affected 1.5 million people in the United States in 2016 alone.1 The good news is that in most cases, cancer is treatable. As of 2014, an estimated 14.5 million Americans were living with cancer.1

After an initial diagnosis, myriad treatment options exist, including chemotherapy drugs, radiation and surgical interventions.

Unfortunately, cancer and its treatment can have long-lasting effects even after a patient has achieved remission. Physical therapists are uniquely equipped to help patients restore function after cancer.

Casey K. is a 26-year-old leukemia survivor who has been in remission for four years. Casey described her experience with physical therapy.

“As a leukemia patient, my hospital stays were lengthy,” she said. “For example, I was diagnosed and admitted to the hospital on the same day and did not leave until six weeks later. The treatment regimen was extremely harsh on my body, as if I was not already sick enough, so my physical conditioning went downhill pretty rapidly.

“PT was ordered early on to try to lessen the extent of my deconditioning. I believe I received PT every other day, if not every day. The PT would come to my room, and if I hadn’t been out of bed yet, that was always the number one priority. We did a lot of range of motion and some light exercises to try to maintain some strength.

“The physical therapist encouraged me to get out of my room and walk around the floor as well. When I was in the hospital for my bone marrow transplant, I was not allowed to leave the room so the physical therapist brought an exercise bike to my room. Overall, the focus seemed to be on keeping me mobile and maintaining as much strength and endurance as possible.

“A few years after remission I still had some deficits. I was experiencing chronic pain, particularly in my ankles. I had been prescribed to some pretty strong pain medications to try to manage it, but I made a decision to be taken off of them as I wanted to return to school. I sought outpatient PT in hopes that something could be done.

“A PT evaluation led to the discovery that I had poor ankle mobility and stability, likely due to the amount of time I spent in bed. The PT worked with me to strengthen my ankles and increase mobility, and ultimately, I did experience a reduction in pain and was able to return to running.”

The scenario and symptoms this cancer survivor describes may be similar to your own or to those of a loved one. Here are some common issues affecting patients with a cancer diagnosis and how PT may help:


Fatigue is the most common effect of cancer and its treatment. Studies show that moderate exercise can improve symptoms of fatigue in cancer survivors.2


Prolonged bed rest because of the pain, illness and energy demand of cancer can lead to weakness and decreased endurance. A physical therapist is a medical professional who can design an individualized exercise program to build strength and cardiovascular endurance safely.

Pain and joint stiffness

Physical therapists can prescribe exercises and improve joint mobility decreased because of radiation therapy, chemotherapy or prolonged immobility.2


Lymphedema is a common post-treatment side effect after radiation or surgical interventions for breast cancer. The removal of or damage to lymph nodes can cause chronic swelling in the upper extremities because of a build-up of lymph fluid. Regular exercise, compression garments and manual interventions by specially certified physical therapists can improve lymphedema. 2

Decreased bone density

Chemotherapy drugs can reduce bone density, causing osteopenia or osteoporosis, which make bones more susceptible to fractures. Physical therapists can prescribe appropriate weight-bearing exercises to promote bone reformation.


Another side effect of chemotherapy can be sensation changes/numbness and tingling, primarily in the extremities.  This can take months to years to resolve, if at all. Physical therapy can address balance deficits and promote adaptation to improve function.

This is not an exhaustive list of post-cancer health concerns that can be addressed through physical therapy.

A physical therapist is a skilled healthcare provider who can help you achieve your goals and restore function. Consult your healthcare provider for a prescription if you feel physical therapy could address your needs.



  1. Cancer statistics. National Cancer Institute. Accessed November 11, 2016.
  2. Siegel R, Desantis C, Virgo K, et al. Cancer treatment and survivorship statistics, 2012. CA Cancer J Clin. 2012;62(4):220-41.