Getting Back On Your Feet After Cancer
Millions of people are affected by cancer every year. Although treatments for cancer are more advanced now than they’ve ever been before, something not often discussed is how survivors deal with life after cancer treatment. There are side effects that go hand-in-hand not just with cancer itself, but also treatments such as oncologic surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
Oncology rehabilitation helps patients regain their basic ability to function in the world, and can drastically improve their quality of life as cancer survivors. To find out more about how oncology rehab helps patients get back on their feet, we spoke with some experts from the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson Health – Northeast.
Oncology rehab encomapsses inpatient and outpatient care and includes occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech and language therapy. Frank Mallon, manager of outpatient physical medicine at Jefferson Health – Northeast, says, “A lot of our patients’ symptoms are swept under the rug as side effects of cancer treatment that they just have to live with. But we’re in a position to help people regain the function that they had before treatment and not just accept it as their new quality of life.”
“We really help people get back to living,” says Tacy Ammons, senior occupational therapist with specialty at Jefferson Health – Northeast. “As an example of the work we do, think about a patient with breast cancer. Lymphedema—swelling caused by lymphatic blockage—is a common side effect, but there’s more to it than just swelling. That swelling can cause functional issues, weakness, pain and more. And we’re here to help rehabilitate patients so they can regain some of that functioning after treatment.”
It’s important to be able to monitor patient progress through their cancer treatment, which is where oncology rehab comes in. Dr. Avnish Bhatia, director of hematology and oncology at Jefferson Health – Northeast, speaks to the pivotal role that rehab plays in a patient’s cancer journey: “Not all physicians will recognize the limitations and symptoms that their patients are experiencing. Oncology rehabilitation allows specialists at Jefferson to give cancer patients baseline assessments, monitor them after treatments, discover side effects that we may not have noticed and help them gain back their quality of life.”
Impairments from Cancer Treatment
Patients may experience impairments from a number of different cancer treatments. For instance, chemotherapy causes patients to be extremely fatigued and develop joint pain and issues with balance. Those who have head and neck cancer may need speech therapy or occupational therapy to help with swallowing food.
“Many of our patients will also need post-surgical rehabilitation to help with their healing process and mobility after oncologic surgery,” says Ammons. “Cancer treatment is extremely complicated, and we’re here to help patients feel their best throughout acute, late-stage and long-term care.”
Some patients also require rehabilitation because of the process of the disease itself. If a patient has metastatic bone cancer, their bones will deteriorate and they may have to see an orthopedic specialist to give them an external fixture, like a cane, or internal fixture, like metal plates, to help them walk. Rehab specialists then help that patient learn to walk with their fixture.
Each patient that goes through oncology rehab has a different story. “We’re not always involved in the same phase for each patient,” says Mallon. “Oncology rehab is effective along the whole continuum of care, wherever they fall in their journey. We’re here and can help them when it’s the right time.”
Whether a patient has just gotten surgery or went through cancer treatment 22 years ago, oncology rehab helps return patients to a higher quality of living. “We can always help you. Late side effects can happen at any time, so don’t be afraid to ask your doctor or reach out to us if you’re concerned about something you’re experiencing. We have the tools and resources to help you get through this. We are waiting for your call,” says Ammons.
Oncology rehab can also help prevent further disabilities. “We’ve seen improved outcomes for those who go through rehabilitation. And it can be very important to help patients remain active in their daily lives and prevent things like falls or accidents that can result in further injury or limitation,” says Dr. Bhatia.
Ammons shares that it’s important to keep an open dialogue with your healthcare team. “Be verbal about sharing your symptoms, whether it’s fatigue, pain or another discomfort, ask your healthcare team if there’s something that can be helpful. Ask if you can try therapy.”