Physical Therapy Builds Strong Survivors

Physical therapy is one post-cancer treatment that is often overlooked.  Besides that devastation of a cancer diagnosis and months of rigorous chemo, surgery, and/or radiation, there are many side effects of cancer treatments.  Common ailments include, but are not limited to:

  • Fatigue/low energy
  • Muscle weakness/decreased strength
  • Joint Tightness
  • Decreased mobility
  • “Chemo brain” or decreased memory
  • Unstable walking
  • Poor balance
  • Pain
  • Lymphedema

Many of these symptoms are often not addresses, seeing that these are “to be expected” with cancer treatments.  Often these symptoms are just as debilitating as the cancer itself.  Physical therapy can help with ALL of these symptoms!  A physical therapy can create a plan of care focusing on cardiovascular health, increasing flexibility, increasing strength, range of motion, and improving balance.  Through specialized exercises, physical therapist can help:

  • Improve strength
  • Increase range of motion
  • Increase energy
  • Stabilize balance
  • Decrease pain
  • Prevent Injury
  • Increase endurance



Massage is often an adjunct treatment in physical therapy.  Besides improving muscle tightness, muscle spasms, and decreasing pain, studies show that massage helps to decrease stress, anxiety, fatigue and depression.  This has been shown to have excellent benefits for cancer patients.

Maintaining joint range of motion and flexibility (especially after cancer in breast/groin area) is important following any surgeries.  Following a mastectomy, it is important to maintain typical range of motion and strength in the shoulder.  Many cancer treatments result in decrease strength and energy.  Developing strong muscles helps with:

  • Improving mobility
  • Preventing injury
  • Ability to perform every day activities
  • Prevention of muscle imbalances

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Energy Levels

Fatigue and low energy are common with cancer treatments.  This is because all of the energy in your body is focusing on reducing the cancer and healing itself from your cancer treatments.  There is little energy left for your normal daily functions.  Whether you have had chemotherapy, surgery or radiation, the cancer treatment itself wears down the good parts of your body as well as killing the cancerous parts.  While it seems that exercise is the last thing that you want to do, it is exactly what you need to improve your energy.  Physical therapy can show you how to exercise without harming yourself.  When the muscles are week, they will injury easily.  It is important to make sure exercises are done correctly and no harmful exercises are performed.

Just as important as not doing harm, doing all the correct exercises is key.  A skilled physical therapist can make sure all areas that have been affected by your cancer treatment are addressed as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Exercise will:

  • Increase flexibility
  • Improve balance
  • Increase muscle mass
  • Prevent muscle wasting/atrophy
  • Improve Cardiovascular health
  • Increase metabolism
  • Improve breathing
  • Increase appetite
  • Allow you to increase walking and standing ability

As well as improving your energy levels, it is important to not waste valuable energy.  Physical therapist as movement specialist.  They can show you practical ways to perform your normal daily activities easier and more efficiently.  This way, while your energy is on the rise, you can get more done before you tire.  A skilled physical therapist can help with managing your activities, prioritizing your routine, and planning your day to ensure you accomplish your goals safely.


Physical therapy can also aid in the prevention and education of lymphedema care following cancer, especially breast cancer.  The lymphatic system removes lymph and helps maintain the fluid in the body by draining various areas.  Often times, following a mastectomy, the lymph nodes are removed and lymphedema can develop.  Lymphedema is an abnormal collection of protein-rich fluid in the arms, legs, and trunk.  Lymphedema is common with surgeries or radiation in the breast, groin, or abdomen regions.  Lymphedema is different than typical edema in that it is fibrous, or hard.  It will not decrease with normal ice and elevation techniques.  Chemotherapy and radiation can also result in increased fluid and swelling by themselves.

Physical therapy treatments for lymphedema include exercise to improve drainage and increase flexibility.  A specialized form of massage known as Complete Decongestive Therapy is utilized to help increase drainage through the lymphatic system to remove both the proteins and excess fluid.  The application of properly fitted compression garments or sleeves can be performed by a specialized physical therapist.  Education on proper skin care is also important for patients suffering from lymphedema.  For best results, choose a physical therapist that is certified in Complete Decongestive Therapy.

If your or a loved one has undergone cancer treatment, talk to your doctor or physical therapist about the benefits of physical therapy for you.  As always, these services are covered by your health insurance!


Blogger: Dr. Sara S. Morrison, PT, DPT, CDT, FCE, CFT, Cert DN, Cert FMT