What to Expect From Cancer Rehabilitation

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

Cancer rehabilitation can help you regain control over many aspects of your life during and after cancer treatment. The goal is to improve your ability to function and to keep you as active and independent as possible.

When you start cancer rehabilitation, you will work with professionals trained in the specific areas of rehabilitation that you need. The professional will work with the rest of your health care team to make a personalized rehabilitation plan for you.

Cancer rehabilitation options

Many cancer centers and hospitals offer cancer rehabilitation services. These services are often provided on an outpatient basis. This means a person does not stay overnight at a hospital or cancer center while receiving them. People with advanced cancer or complex challenges may receive inpatient rehabilitation at the hospital, a rehabilitation center, or a long-term care center. This means they stay overnight or longer. Some types of rehabilitation services can also be provided in a person’s home.

Consider these factors when choosing a cancer rehabilitation program:

  • The location of the center. If your doctor prescribed outpatient cancer rehabilitation, ask him or her about local options. Finding services near your home or office can make it easier to get to your appointments. Depending on your rehabilitation plan, you may have 1 or more rehabilitation appointments a week for several weeks or months.

  • Insurance coverage. Health insurance may affect your decision on where to receive cancer rehabilitation. You may be able to choose only the rehabilitation programs covered by your insurance. Your insurance company can give you a list of approved programs. Ask how many rehabilitation sessions your insurance covers each year and what you have to pay out of pocket for each appointment.

Cancer rehabilitation professionals

There are many types of rehabilitation professionals, such as physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists. Each type of specialist has specific education and training requirements. Learn more about the different types of professionals and what they can help you with.

Preparing for your first cancer rehabilitation appointment

When you make your first appointment, consider asking the clinic the following questions:

  • What should I bring with me to my first appointment?

  • What type of rehabilitation specialist will I see on my first visit?

  • Is the rehabilitation specialist I am seeing trained and experienced in treating people with cancer or cancer survivors?

  • What should I expect during this appointment?

  • What type of clothing should I wear?

  • Will I be doing any physical activity during my visit?

  • Will any tests be done?

  • How long will my appointment last?

  • Has my insurance plan provided you approval for my visit?

The clinic will likely ask you to fill out detailed forms before the appointment, either at home or in the clinic. These medical forms will ask about your cancer treatment and medical history. They may also ask you to explain the challenges and limitations you are having from the cancer or its treatment. In addition to filling out the forms, you may want to:

  • Write down the goals you hope to achieve through cancer rehabilitation so you can easily share them during your appointment.

  • Write down a list of questions you would like to ask about cancer rehabilitation.

  • Ask a loved one to go with you so they can help you listen and take notes.

What to expect during your first cancer rehabilitation appointment

Your first cancer rehabilitation appointment will be a comprehensive evaluation of your medical history and current problems. This is called a pre-treatment assessment.

You will be asked several questions, such as:

  • What limitations are you experiencing? How are they affecting your life?

  • Are you in pain? If so, what makes it better or worse?

  • What challenges are you experiencing in your home environment? Your work environment?

  • Are you having trouble with daily activities, such as bathing, getting dressed, or eating?

  • What hobbies do you have and are you able to participate in them?

  • Do you feel tired or weak?

  • Are you having difficulty multitasking, thinking clearly, or remembering things?

  • What do you hope to achieve through cancer rehabilitation?

Specific types of physical examinations and evaluations may also be done. The specialist may:

  • Test your range of motion, muscle strength, or nerve function

  • Check areas of your body for swelling and inflammation

  • Watch you do everyday activities, such as walking or standing up from a chair

Starting a treatment plan

Results of the pre-treatment assessment allows the cancer rehabilitation professional to develop a rehabilitation plan. This will be based on your personal needs and goals. The plan may include working with more than 1 type of cancer rehabilitation specialist. It will be shared with other members of your health care team.

The treatment plan will include:

  • Recommended treatments. Treatments may include therapy techniques, exercises, and assistive devices. You may also spend time relearning skills you may have lost or learning new ways to adapt to challenges and your environment. During your appointments, do not hesitate to ask the cancer rehabilitation specialist questions.

  • The number of appointments you need and how often you need them. You may need only a few cancer rehabilitation appointments. Or you may need rehabilitation several times a week for several weeks or months. Appointments typically last 1 to 2 hours.

  • A reassessment timeline. Some appointments will be used to check your progress. Your cancer rehabilitation treatment plan will be adjusted after you meet each goal or if you have any new symptoms.

What to expect after a cancer rehabilitation appointment

Most people leave their appointment feeling better than when they came in. However, you may feel sore or tired. If you feel too uncomfortable or are in pain, talk with your lead rehabilitation specialist.

Your rehabilitation plan may include activities or exercises to do at home between appointments. It is important to complete them so that you can make as much progress as possible. If you have a chronic, lasting issue, the in-home plan may become a regular part of your health care.

After cancer rehabilitation ends

Cancer rehabilitation can improve your quality of life by helping you regain and maintain a productive and pain-free lifestyle. Talk with your health care team about restarting cancer rehabilitation any time you notice a change in symptoms that:

  • Makes you less active

  • Keeps you from doing an activity

  • Reduces your ability to do everyday tasks

You can receive cancer rehabilitation at any time during or after cancer treatment.

Related Resources

What is Cancer Rehabilitation?

How to Stay Safe and Independent During Cancer Treatment

The Importance of Follow-Up Care

What Comes After Finishing Treatment: An Expert Q&A