Cancer Care

How Can Physical Therapy Help Cancer Patients?


Physical therapy is a key component often missing in the treatment of breast and other cancer patients. Multiple research studies have shown that large numbers of cancer survivors experience ongoing pain, swelling, or impairments in mobility, strength, posture, and stamina that affect their functional ability and quality of life long after their cancer treatments have ended. Research has also demonstrated that the correct physical therapy regimen can help patients recover faster, experience less pain, and prevent or reduce the severity of many of the common long-term complications of cancer treatment.

Our specialized physical therapy services are designed to empower cancer patients to take a more active role in their recovery, restore optimal function, and most importantly improve quality of life. Our caring therapists have advanced certification in Orthopaedic Manual Therapy and extensive post graduate training in the management of lymphedema and venous insufficiency. This combination of specialized skills allows them to address the common musculoskeletal problems affecting the muscles, joints, and nerves of cancer patients, as well as the swelling that can occur in any region of the body if there is compromise of the lymphatic or venous systems.

Common Complications Physical Therapy Can Address

Scar Tissue Tightness and Adhesions:
Surgical procedures are a common intervention with many cancer treatment regimens. Any surgical procedure will create scar tissue. For the scar to heal with the proper mobility and strength, it must be stretched or manually released during the healing process. Patients that have undergone a surgical procedure should begin a gentle stretching routine as soon as their wounds have closed, unless there are additional complications. It is especially important to restore full motion as early as possible if radiation treatments will be part of your treatment protocol to avoid permanent loss of motion due to radiation fibrosis. A physical therapist is trained in evaluating soft-tissue mobility and the stage of tissue healing, muscle balance, range of motion, and posture, and will be able to prescribe and guide you in a progressive rehabilitation program to facilitate optimal healing. In addition to prescriptive exercises, there are hands-on techniques that a manual therapist can use to loosen and release tight or adhered scar tissue and accelerate the recovery process. In breast cancer patients, it is quite common for scar tissue restrictions to create pain, stiffness, and other problems in the chest, trunk, neck, shoulder, and arm. Prostate, Melanoma, and Gynecological cancers can cause these same types of problems in the back and lower extremities.

Surgical or radiation treatments directed at the lymph nodes can disrupt normal lymphatic circulation and cause a buildup of protein-rich fluid in the tissues called Lymphedema. Depending on the lymph nodes involved, this condition can occur anywhere in the body. A therapy regimen called Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) involves patient education. Specialized manual lymph drainage (MLD) techniques, skin care, bandaging, exercise, and use of compression garments can prevent or minimize this complication. If you have cancer treatment involving the lymph nodes, it is important to get education about lymphedema risks, precautions, and potential management techniques early on, as prevention and early intervention allow the best outcomes. Early signs and symptoms of developing Lymphedema may be feelings of heaviness, increased fatigue, tingling sensations, intermittent swelling after activity or in hot weather, and superficial cording of lymphatic vessels, (Axillary Web Syndrome/Lymphangiitis), in the affected region. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please seek a consultation with a therapist specially trained in the evaluation and treatment of lymphedema.

In addition to maintaining a balance of protein and fluid in the tissues, the lymphatic system is part of the body’s immune system that prevents infection. When there is compromise of the lymphatic system, that region of the body is more susceptible to infection, and a little cut can develop into a serious infection rapidly. Education in skin care, protecting against cuts and burns, and lymphedema management can help prevent this dangerous complication. If your lymph nodes have been involved in your cancer treatment and you think that you might be developing an infection, it is very important to immediately consult your doctor and seek medical attention sooner rather than later.

Nerve symptoms:
Scar tissue, postural stress and weakness, and radiation fibrosis can all compromise nerve tissue and create painful burning, sharp shooting, tingling, or numbness sensations. A manual therapist can assess the cause and location of the problem and apply hands-on techniques and gentle exercises to decompress or mobilize the nerves and surrounding soft tissues to aid in their recovery.

Joint Dysfunction:
Soft-tissue tightness, weakness, postural guarding, and muscle spasms can all cause joints to move abnormally. When they do, over time the joints themselves will become inflamed and painful. If left untreated, they will eventually begin to break down and become arthritic. A physical therapist trained in manual therapy and prescriptive exercise can restore normal joint mobility, stability, and tracking and alleviate these painful dysfunctions.

Muscle Weakness/Deconditioning and Fatigue:
Muscle weakness can develop due to lack of use, pain, and postural changes. In addition, chemotherapy and radiation treatments can cause generalized fatigue and lack of energy. Over time, targeted resistance exercises and progressive aerobic conditioning can restore normal muscle balance, general stamina, and energy.

Radiation Fibrosis:
Radiation treatments cause scarring deep within the tissues and create stiffness, tightness, restriction, and compromise of lymphatic circulation. It is imperative to get and maintain as much normal soft-tissue mobility and range of motion as possible prior to radiation treatments and during the course of treatment to prevent permanent motion restriction and reduce the risk of developing lymphedema.

A diagnosis of Cancer can be overwhelming; you need a good support team around you. Remember that there are physical therapists specially trained to manage cancer complications, whose only goal is to help you on your path back to a functional, pain-free, active life. You can do it, and it would be our privilege to help you along your path to recovery.