People of any age who are diagnosed with cancer can improve strength, function, and independence during and after cancer treatment with the help of physical therapy. Physical therapists help with concerns related to weakness, balance, scar tissue, lymphedema, range of motion, and rehabilitation equipment.
To schedule a physical therapy appointment, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center patients need to be referred by a Fred Hutch physician, physician assistant or nurse practitioner. Patients who have secondary lymphedema can be seen at the Fred Hutch clinic by one of our physical therapists specializing in oncology. Physical therapy is located on the fourth floor of the South Lake Union clinic.
Benefits of physical therapy
Cancer may be treated by surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and other treatments. Each of these treatments has unique side effects, some of which may lead to physical impairments that make normal daily activities difficult. We have advanced training in oncology care and will skillfully evaluate and treat your condition and provide you with tools to continue managing symptoms on your own.
Comprehensive cancer institutes throughout the United States, as well as the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, endorse exercise for people with cancer.
Who can benefit from physical therapy?
People treated for these diseases are commonly referred for physical therapy:
After mastectomy, axillary lymph node dissection, or both, to provide overall shoulder stretching, strengthening, and cardiovascular conditioning, lymphedema risk-reduction, and scar-tissue treatment.
For radiation precaution education, overall neck and shoulder stretching, strengthening, cardiovascular conditioning, lymphedema, and scar-tissue treatment.
For overall shoulder stretching, strengthening, and cardiovascular conditioning, lymphedema risk-reduction, and scar-tissue treatment.
To decrease phantom-limb pain and to increase functional mobility in patients who have had a joint replacement, reconstruction, or an amputation. Other services include cardiovascular, strength, and stretching training, lymphedema, scar-tissue work, and limb desensitization after amputation.
Physical therapy solutions
People treated for a wide range of different cancers are referred to physical therapy. Physical therapists treat the following common problems related to cancer and its treatment:
If you’re moving less due to fatigue from treatment and medications, such as steroids and chemotherapy, your muscles may atrophy and weaken. Physical therapists evaluate muscle strength and develop individualized exercise programs to restore strength. You will learn how to advance through a series of safe, appropriate exercises to meet your rehabilitation goals.
Surgery and certain medications may cause temporary swelling. A more permanent condition called lymphedema can result if lymph nodes were removed during surgery. Radiation can also increase your risk of developing lymphedema. Physical therapists assess swelling, including evaluating your soft tissues and measuring the girth of your limbs, to determine which combination of compression therapy and manual techniques will be most effective for you. Manual lymphatic drainage techniques, along with compression therapy, promotes fluid clearance to reduce swelling so you can move more freely with greater comfort.
Cancer treatment can have a significant and lasting effect on your energy level and endurance. Abnormal blood counts may contribute to feeling fatigued. Research supports exercise as a treatment for fatigue. Your physical therapist will help develop a graded and individualized exercise program to improve your energy level. You will receive coaching on how to conserve your energy and how to pace yourself during activities to get the best results.
Generalized weakness from loss of muscle mass and strength can impair your balance and even lead to falls. Chemotherapy may cause a condition called neuropathy, which can result in numbness and tingling in the hands and feet. If you have neuropathy in your feet, you might be less aware of your position and lose agility and coordination. Physical therapists will test your balance to determine the extent of your problem and suggest activities to stimulate your sensory awareness and improve your stability. Strengthening your muscles and reducing swelling may also improve your balance and reduce your risk of falling.
Lack of activity can result in stiffness. After an allogeneic bone marrow transplant (using a donor’s cells), a condition called graft-versus-host disease can lead to tightening of the body’s connective tissues and loss of flexibility. Swelling and surgery may also limit the ability of a joint to move through its full range. A physical therapist will measure your range of motion and assess your tissue flexibility. Treatment may include manual techniques to loosen connective tissue restrictions and stretch muscles to improve flexibility in the most restricted joints.
Chemotherapy, as well as the disease itself, can weaken and reduce the density of your bones. This condition is associated with an increased risk for fractures. Strengthening your muscles and doing weight-bearing exercises helps build bone mineral density. Physical therapists will teach you a safe and effective program to counteract a decline in bone density. And we’ll show you how to avoid excessive stress to vulnerable areas.
Radiation and surgery can create scar tissue that may be painful and decrease your flexibility or entrap nerves. Chronic swelling is also associated with the development of scar tissue. Physical therapists use targeted manual therapy and tissue techniques, as well as specific stretching and tissue and nerve mobilization, to help reduce pain associated with scar tissue and increase your mobility.
Lack of activity, loss of strength, and fatigue can diminish your cardiovascular health. If you experience shortness of breath or reduced endurance when walking or climbing stairs, these are signs of cardiovascular compromise. Physical therapists will develop a comprehensive, gradually progressive aerobic training program to improve your muscle metabolism, strengthen your muscles, and improve your endurance. We will teach you strategies to incorporate activities throughout your day to better manage your fatigue.
Meet our physical therapists
At Fred Hutch, physical therapists work as part of the care team with a patient's doctors, nurses and other specialists. Patients who have secondary lymphedema can be seen at the Fred Hutch clinic by one of our Certified Lymphedema Therapists.