What is Cancer Rehabilitation?

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2019

Cancer and its treatment often cause physical, psychological, and cognitive problems. These problems can make it harder to do daily activities or return to work. They may also have a lasting effect on your health. Cancer rehabilitation can help with these problems, which can happen during and after cancer treatment. The goal of cancer rehabilitation is to:

  • Help you stay as active as possible and participate in work, family, and other life roles

  • Lessen the side effects and symptoms of the cancer and its treatment

  • Help keep you 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 survivorship.

Problems cancer rehabilitation can address

Physical problems

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

  • Pain

  • Swelling

  • Weakness and loss of strength

  • Range of motion and flexibility issues

  • Decreased endurance

  • Skin changes from radiation therapy

  • Lymphedema

  • Balance issues and fear of falling

  • Neuropathy, or numbness and tingling in hands or feet

  • Fatigue

  • Sexual dysfunction

  • Problems swallowing

  • Problems chewing food

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

Mobility problems

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

Cognitive problems

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 fogginess

  • Memory trouble

Learn more about cognitive problems that people with cancer and cancer survivors can experience.

Types of cancer rehabilitation professionals

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 (PT). PTs specialize in helping people improve or restore mobility. They can also help reduce or eliminate pain. Oncology PTs work specifically with people who have cancer and cancer survivors.

  • Occupational therapist (OT). OTs help maximize the function, comfort, and safety of patients during everyday living situations. This can include managing daily tasks, such as bathing and dressing. The plan is based on the layout of a home, school, or work place. OTs also teach ways to reduce the effort needed for certain tasks. This helps people manage fatigue and other limitations.

  • Speech pathologist (SLP). SLPs specialize in communication and swallowing disorders. They can help people maintain their swallowing and eating ability after radiation therapy and chemotherapy for head and neck cancers. An SLP 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 therapists evaluate and treat lymphedema. They focus on reducing swelling and controlling pain. They often use techniques such as compression garments, specialized massages, bandaging methods, 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.

  • Recreational therapist. Recreational therapists treat and help maintain a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being by helping to reduce stress, anxiety 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.

  • Dietitian. A dietitian, or nutritionist, is a food and nutrition professional. Oncology dietitians help people understand nutrition guidelines for specific types of cancer and supportive nutrition during treatment. They also help people adopt healthy eating patterns to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. 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 and cancer.

When to get cancer rehabilitation

You can play a proactive role in your medical care. Talk with your health care team about cancer rehabilitation any time you notice a change in symptoms 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 arm less. As a result, the arm may become weaker and stiffer over time. Or a little bit of swelling can actually be an early sign of edema that should be treated before it worsens.

You can also ask your health care team about seeing a cancer rehabilitation professional before you start cancer treatment. The rehabilitation professional can assess your strength, mobility, and activities before problems start. 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 work and home life.

Related Resources

What to Expect From Cancer Rehabilitation

Three Tips for Transitioning Out of Cancer Treatment

Long-Term Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

More Information

LIVESTRONG: Rehabilitation After Cancer