A cancer diagnosis may lead to experiencing various physical, emotional, and practical challenges. Learning of a cancer diagnosis can be a very overwhelming experience, and many patients may be uncertain where to turn. They may look to medical professionals for guidance and support in moving forward. Members of an interdisciplinary cancer team, such as nurses and oncology social workers, can assist patients in navigating these concerns. Cancer rehabilitation can specifically address mobility and cognitive challenges by helping patients obtain and maintain their ability to function, despite the potential limitations symptoms and cancer-related treatments may cause.1

The cumulative effects of cancer treatment can impact a patient’s ability to perform activities of daily living ranging from personal hygiene, bathing, or getting dressed to being able to return to work.2 Sixty percent to 90% of people with cancer have at least one need for specialized rehabilitation. Common impairments include weakness, fatigue, pain, difficulty swallowing, lymphedema, balance issues, concentration, and memory loss.1 Treatments may also affect intrapersonal processes and self-control.3 Many patients may be concerned about diminished independence after a diagnosis, as disability is a leading stressor among persons with cancer.1 Cancer rehabilitation can open the door to finding strategies that can help patients continue to be independent or even potentially regain some independence.4

Cancer rehabilitation comprises several therapies including, but not limited to, speech language pathology, physical therapy, occupational therapy, rehabilitation medicine, lymphedema therapy, neuropsychology, and cognitive therapy. The role of professionals in these fields is to assist with improving function, participation, risk of late effects, and overall quality of life.4 The goal of cancer rehabilitation is to prevent or limit future impairments.5

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Benefits of Rehabilitation

Cancer rehabilitation may generally be posed to patients as a program or process that could be considered once treatment is complete. However, research shows that cancer rehabilitation during and even before treatment (prehabilitation) may increase a patient’s quality of life immensely. These services may stop the cascade of side effects early on or before they begin. Cancer rehabilitation during treatment can help patients anticipate and prepare for long-term side effects, even eliminating some of them.4 According to the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer, “The availability of rehabilitation care services is an essential component of comprehensive cancer care, beginning at the time of diagnosis and being continuously available throughout treatment.”6 Research shows that beginning cancer rehabilitation services at diagnosis can also help decrease overall medical costs in the long term for patients.1

A referral to a cancer rehabilitation specialist can help patients understand what can be done to manage mobility and cognitive issues. Patients can consider what their quality of life looks like and how it can be improved. Cancer rehabilitation specialists are ultimately specialists in function and are knowledgeable in anticipated symptoms and side effects of treatment. Recommendations suggest that patients be screened or tested prior to beginning treatment then prospectively surveilled throughout treatment.