Better, Stronger, Happier

CURE, Summer 2012, Volume 11, Issue 2

Why cancer rehabilitation is necessary

Cancer affects one in three people at some stage in their life. The good news is that the advent of new technologies and treatments means fewer people are dying of cancer. Yet cancer and its treatments leave a majority of cancer survivors with compromised muscular strength and cardiovascular abnormalities, leading to diminished energy, fatigue and weakness. In fact, the potential exists for cancer survivors to experience negative alterations in every system (cardiovascular, muscular, immune, gastrointestinal, etc.) within their bodies.

These negative alterations compromise the quality of life for cancer survivors, making it difficult to perform activities of daily living. The purpose of cancer rehabilitation is to reverse the severity of the negative side effects of cancer and its treatments. Cancer rehabilitation, therefore, is essential as a complementary treatment throughout the cancer continuum (diagnosis, treatment, recovery).

Cancer rehabilitation is multidimensional, addressing issues related to the psychological well-being, socioeconomic impact and physical functioning of cancer survivors. Many cancer rehabilitation programs focus on the psychological and socioeconomic issues of survivors but do not address their physical functioning (work capacity).

Cancer rehabilitation is multidimensional, addressing issues related to the psychological well-being, socioeconomic impact and physical functioning of cancer survivors.

Improving physical functioning is essential for cancer survivors’ quality of life. The positive effects of exercise are closely related to the negative effects of cancer treatment. For example, some chemotherapy drugs can adversely affect heart function. Exercise, on the other hand, can improve heart function by increasing the heart’s ability to contract, which boosts the amount of blood pumped by the heart so oxygen can be delivered more efficiently to the working muscles. The increased oxygen can help reduce the fatigue often experienced by cancer survivors.

Exercise-based cancer rehabilitation can also lead to enhanced muscle strength by improving mechanisms within the muscle tissue. Research investigations at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute have shown improvements in cardiovascular work capacity, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, range of motion and quality of life, with simultaneous reductions in depression and fatigue during and following treatment. We have found that even a limited amount of exercise prior to beginning treatment helps minimize the negative effects of cancer treatments.

When considering a cancer rehabilitation program, select one that offers exercise specifically for cancer survivors. The program should include qualified personnel, such as trained physical therapists and certified cancer exercise specialists. Physical therapists will work specific areas (i.e., shoulder range of motion for breast cancer patients) while cancer exercise specialists work the entire body (because cancer treatments affect the whole body). The program should include a variety of activities for cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength, balance, flexibility and range of motion. The program should focus on the main components of exercise: frequency, duration, intensity (how hard you work) and progression. The most important component of exercise is intensity. The program should be moderate intensity during treatment and for two months following treatment. Intensity of exercise is based on heart rate. The program should be two to three times per week for 60 minutes in duration. During treatment, there may not be an increase (progression) in exercise, because this is based on how the patient feels. Two months following treatment there is a slow, gradual progression in duration and intensity of exercise.

Remember, take control of your life. Don’t let cancer defeat you. Get involved in a cancer rehabilitation program. You will feel better, stronger and happier.