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Survivorship: During and After Treatment

What Is Cancer Rehabilitation?

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The following information was developed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), and is presented on as part of a collaboration between the American Cancer Society and ASCO. Both organizations have long shared a commitment to empowering people with information about cancer they can trust. Learn more about this collaboration and how it will help advance that goal. Used with permission. ©2005-2022.  

Cancer and its treatment often cause physical, mobility, and cognitive problems. These problems can make it harder to do daily activities, return to work, or continue cancer treatment. They can have a lasting effect on your health and overall quality of life. Cancer rehabilitation can help with these problems.

Cancer rehabilitation is a supportive health care program. The goals of cancer rehabilitation are:

  • Help you stay as active as possible and participate in family, work, and other life roles
  • Lessen the side effects and symptoms of cancer and its treatment
  • Help you stay as independent as possible
  • Improve your quality of life

Cancer rehabilitation is given by trained rehabilitation professionals that you can work with during treatment, follow-up care, or long-term survivorship.

When should I get cancer rehabilitation?

Talk with your health care team about cancer rehabilitation any time you notice a change that makes you less active or makes everyday tasks more difficult. Ask yourself:

  • Am I having more trouble getting around?
  • Am I having pain, weakness, or other symptoms?
  • Am I having trouble thinking clearly?

It is important to address the changes you notice as early as possible, so they do not worsen. For example, a little bit of joint stiffness that keeps you from reaching overhead may result in you using your arms less. As a result, your arm may become weaker and stiffer over time.

You can also ask your health care team about seeing a cancer rehabilitation professional before cancer treatment begins. The rehabilitation professional can measure your strength, mobility, and activities before problems start. They may recommend changes to help you prepare physically and mentally for cancer treatment, called prehabilitation. You can then be monitored throughout treatment and beyond to catch issues before they become serious. This approach can increase your quality of life and it can reduce symptoms and problems that can impact your life.

What physical problems can cancer rehabilitation help?

Cancer and cancer treatment can cause many different kinds of physical problems. Cancer rehabilitation can help with many of them, including:

Learn more about the physical side effects of cancer and cancer treatment.

What mobility problems can cancer rehabilitation help?

Mobility problems affect how a person moves around. Cancer rehabilitation can help if you have difficulty:

  • Getting up off the floor
  • Getting out of a chair
  • Climbing stairs
  • Walking
  • Getting dressed
  • Showering

Learn more about staying safe and active during cancer treatment.

What cognitive problems can cancer rehabilitation help?

Cognitive problems are related to a person's mental abilities. Talk with your doctor about cancer rehabilitation if you have:

  • Difficulty multitasking
  • Difficulty thinking clearly or mental fog
  • Memory trouble

Learn more about the attention, thinking, and memory problems that people with diagnosed with cancer can experience.

What specialists can provide cancer rehabilitation services?

The specialists described below are examples of the different types of rehabilitation professionals that may be part of your cancer care team. Depending on your needs, you may visit 1 or more of these specialists during cancer treatment and recovery. Learn more about what to expect during appointments with these professionals and how to prepare.

Physical therapist. Physical therapists specialize in helping people improve or restore mobility. They can also help reduce or eliminate pain. Oncology physical therapists work specifically with people who have been diagnosed with cancer.

Occupational therapist. Occupational therapists help maximize the function, comfort, and safety of patients during everyday living situations. This can include managing daily tasks, such as bathing and dressing. Occupational therapists also teach ways to reduce the effort needed for certain tasks. This helps people manage fatigue and other limitations.

Speech language pathologist. Speech language pathologists, or speech therapists, specialize in communication and swallowing disorders. They can help people maintain their swallowing and eating ability if cancer treatment has affected those functions, such as during treatment for head and neck cancers. This specialist may also help people with cognitive problems improve their memory and organization skills.

Physiatrist. Physiatrists are also called physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists. They specialize in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of nerve, muscle, and bone disorders that can change how people move and function. These specialists often work with people on pain management.

Lymphedema therapist. Lymphedema is the abnormal buildup of fluid in soft tissue that can occur in different parts of the body during or after treatment. Lymphedema therapists evaluate and treat lymphedema by focusing on reducing swelling and controlling pain. They often use techniques such as specialized massages, bandaging methods, compression garments, and exercises.

Cognitive psychologist. Cognitive psychologists, also called neuropsychologists, are experts in understanding how behavior relates to brain function. They often help manage "chemobrain," a word used to describe the cognitive problems that people with cancer often face during and after cancer treatment.

Vocational counselor. Vocational counselors support people who are returning to work during or after cancer treatment. They can help a person learn how to do daily job-related tasks more easily. Learn more about returning to work after cancer and working when you have cancer.

Recreational therapist. Recreational therapists help maintain a person's physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing by helping to reduce stressanxiety, and depression. They also help build a person's confidence and strengthen personal skills. Recreational therapy provides treatment services in many different ways, including through art, exercise, games, dance, and music.

Registered dietitian. A registered dietitian, or a registered dietitian nutritionist, is a food and nutrition specialist. Oncology dietitians help people understand nutrition guidelines for specific types of cancer and supportive nutrition during treatment. They also help people eat well and adopt healthy eating patterns. Learn more about nutrition recommendations during and after cancer treatment.

Exercise physiologist. Exercise physiologists analyze a person's fitness to help them improve function. Using stress tests and other tools, they evaluate cardiovascular function and metabolism. They can also design fitness plans that meet the needs of people during and after cancer treatment. Learn more about exercise during and after cancer treatment.

Questions to ask the health care team

Consider asking your health care team the following questions about cancer rehabilitation:

  • Are there ways I can prepare myself physically and mentally for cancer treatment?
  • Is it likely I will need physical therapy, speech therapy, nutrition guidance, or another type of rehabilitation during or after my cancer treatment?
  • What type of cancer rehabilitation would you recommend for me?
  • How can this rehabilitation help me?
  • Can you recommend a cancer rehabilitation specialist who can help me with the specific side effect I am experiencing?
  • What can I do at home to stay as safe and independent as possible?

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