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For cancer patients, physical therapy improves lives and survival chances

By Tracy Winnie and Cheries Brule

A large portion of the American population suffers from cancer’s side effects. Estimates run up into the millions.

But survival rates from cancer are improving – a 20 percent increase over the past 20 years. That reflects progress in early diagnosis of certain cancers and treatment improvements.

These include improvements in physical therapy, which can help with pain, fatigue, lymphedema and damage to bones, joints, muscles and other soft tissue. Physical therapy offers wonderful options for making lives better.

Such therapy can be a complementary treatment for patients on pain medication. Soft tissue massage, exercise and positioning can increase comfort. Relaxation techniques also may control pain and reduce fatigue.

Fatigue probably is the top complaint among cancer patients. Such “whole-body tiredness” can be unrelated to one’s activity level and unrelieved by rest. But it can be addressed through therapy and simple techniques such as alternating work and rest and pacing one’s activities.

For example, a cancer patient can improve his or her life by avoiding temperature extremes and focusing on effective ways to sleep, eat and manage stress. A physical therapist can help a patient tolerate activities better by guiding moderate cardiovascular and strength-building exercise.

Because cancer treatments can damage bones, joints and muscles, the patient may experience loss of mobility, decreased flexibility, weakness, postural changes and tissue hardening. Physical therapists can help to decrease these effects and restore function.

Cancer treatments also can damage the body’s lymphatic system, creating a swelling condition called lymphedema. Although lymphedema isn’t curable, certain physical therapists can provide helpful treatment.

To reduce the risk of lymphedema, the patient should be aware of the symptoms, eat healthy, maintain a healthy weight, stay moderately active and avoid temperature extremes and trauma to the involved body part – including constricting jewelry, clothing and even blood pressure cuffs. Compression garments also can help.

Manual treatments such as joint mobilization, myofascial release and soft-tissue release can help to decrease pain, fluid buildup and such conditions as tissue cording, soft-tissue restrictions and scar adhesions.

Exercise can boost tolerance to chemotherapy and radiation. It’s a good outlet for stress, and can improve one’s overall sense of wellbeing. Physical therapists use customized exercise programs to increase strength, flexibility, endurance, range of motion and balance.

A physical therapist can provide information about positioning, posture, movement, fall prevention, sleeping habits and many other gentle techniques designed to give the patient the greatest possible comfort and functional independence.

An early start to complementary treatments such as physical therapy can help to minimize secondary symptoms and – more importantly – maintain a patient’s functional independence and quality of life.

Tracy Winnie and Cheries Brule are licensed physical therapists and certified lymphedema therapists with Oaklawn Physical Rehabilitation Services. Readers with questions may call (269) 781-6030.