Physical Therapy to Combat the Negative Effects of Cancer

Ryan Hastie, PT, DPT, CSCS |

Cancer is a term used to describe a collection of diseases involving the growth of abnormal cells in the body that attack and kill normal, heathy cells. Cancer cells have to potential to spread throughout the body and negatively affect the function of different systems throughout the body.

As cancer progresses, the disease itself or cancer-related treatments can cause a plethora of ailments that affect one’s ability function day to day. difficulty with walking. Side effects of cancer treatments can also include pain, weakness, lymphedema, fatigue, decreased endurance and/or shortness of breath. The American Cancer Society recommends that people undergoing cancer treatment (any kind) should perform some form of physical activity to minimize fatigue and maintain muscle mass to improve their ability to perform daily tasks.

Physical therapists (PTs) are medical professionals that are trained to treat those currently fighting or recovering from cancer. A PT will assess a patient and form a personalized treatment plan specific to that person. Physical therapy during or after cancer can help to minimize mobility deficits, reduce pain, minimize scar tissue formation (if the patient underwent surgery) and improve mood and mental well-being.

For those suffering from lymphedema, your physical therapy can use a variety of manual or passive treatments to decrease and control/manage swelling throughout the body. This can be done by manual or hand on therapy, specific movements or exercises, and with the use of compression garments.

One of the most common side effects of cancer and cancer treatments is weakness and pain. Physical therapy can assist by improving your flexibility and strength to ensure your body is able to handle daily tasks and perform functional movements such as getting off the toilet or walking.

Other benefits that physical therapy can provide to cancer patients are:

  • Mood: physical activity has been shown to improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression. Exercise can help alleviate stress-related symptoms following a cancer diagnosis or when undergoing cancer treatment.
  • Body weight: achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight can improve energy levels and decrease risk of diabetes or other metabolic conditions.
  • Balance: after assessing your balance, your PT will prescribe exercises to improve or maintain balance to minimize fall risk to prevent falls or injury.
  • Home exercise program: your PT will give you exercises to emphasize flexibility, strength and stability to supplement exercises that are performed in the clinic.


If you or a loved one are currently battling cancer or are a survivor, please reach out to your local Doctor of Physical Therapy to help with your fight. Your PT will perform a full, in-depth assessment and devise a treatment plan to minimize the devastating effects of cancer. Please do not suffer alone, there are people out there ready and able to help! Physical therapists improve the way you move!