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Exercise for Cancer Survivors

What is A Survivor?

The National Cancer Institute defines an individual as a survivor from the date of their diagnosis until the end of their lives. We all know a survivor. They make up 5% of the population in the U.S. In fact, not only are more people surviving cancer today compared to 30 years ago, but survivors are living longer than ever before. There are many types of cancer survivors. Some have just been diagnosed and are currently undergoing treatment. Many have been in remission for many years. Other survivors might live with cancer for the remainder of their lives. Whether they are living with cancer or are cancer free, survivors face a number of challenges.  

Side Effects

Whether their going through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or all of the above, cancer treatments can have some pretty rough side effects. These are just a few:

  • Chronic pain 
  • Fatigue 
  • Weakness
  • Balance issues 
  • Bone Loss

Survivors may also face challenges completing everyday tasks like brushing their hair or shaving their face due to limited range of motion from scar tissue or lymphedema. Participating in leisure activities like gardening or golf may be difficult due to lack of endurance and fatigue. Survivors may be unable to complete work tasks or fulfill their typical family duties because of the lasting effects of their treatment. And with the length of survivorship growing, survivors are living with these issues for longer and longer periods. 

Is Exercise Even Safe?

The short answer - Yes! 

Not only is exercise safe for survivors, it’s encouraged!

The American Cancer Society recommends cancer survivors aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise per week with a minimum of two days that include resistance training. Before you panic, resistance training doesn’t have to mean dumbbells and weight machines. For some individuals, gravity will be all the resistance they need!

Exercise is important throughout survivorship. For many survivors, the fear of cancer returning is quite real. 1 in 6  people diagnosed with cancer have had cancer in the past. While things like family history and genetics are outside our control, many risk factors -- like exercise, are controllable! 

To read more about the nutrition and activity guidelines for survivors, Click Here!  
So How Can Physical Therapy Help?

Rehab has the potential to improve life throughout survivorship. 

The American Society of Clinical Oncology recognizes the benefits of physical therapy for chronic pain in adult cancer survivors. Physical therapists are trained to address weakness, low endurance, diminished range of motion and falls risk. Physical therapy can benefit patients throughout the span of their cancer treatment. Before surgery, chemo, or radiation, physical therapists can take measurements to show what the patient can do. These numbers are tracked throughout treatment and can help prevent significant losses in strength and ability. During their course of treatment, PT’s can teach their patients how to move more efficiently to decrease pain, and conserve energy. 

Physical therapists can also address specific complaints and help patients with general conditioning following treatment for maintenance. For survivors who transition to palliative and end of life care, physical therapy can maximize function and increase patient safety by teaching patients and caregivers techniques for assisting everyday activities with good body mechanics and the use of helpful equipment.

Managing Survivorship in the Age of Covid-19

We’re all tired of talking about it, but CoronaVirus still presents a very real threat, particularly for at-risk populations like survivors. So how can you or your loved ones, as survivors, safely receive the care you need?

Physical therapy services provided through telehealth (virtual appointments) could be the right option! Initial assessments to identify areas in need of improvement and techniques to address these needs can be taught through demonstration, web based videos and links in conjunction with skilled observation.  

 A recent study found that participating in a Telehealth exercise program (including walking program and resistance training based on patients’ physical impairments) decreased the length of hospital stays and increased discharge to home rate. So not only did participants improve more quickly, more were able to return to their homes instead of long-term care and assisted living facilities.  

Survivors are at a higher risk during this time due to their lowered immune status, but that doesn’t mean they should continue to suffer! 

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