Thrive by IU Health

April 08, 2022

Exercise and physical therapy can be part of a patient’s cancer care

IU Health University Hospital

Exercise and physical therapy can be part of a patient’s cancer care

A cancer diagnosis is mentally overwhelming. Treatments throw off typical routines and add to that imbalance. Here’s how physical therapy can help patients cope with that diagnosis.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes,

The patient was in his 30s. He had been in ICU, in bed for several days. As those days turned into weeks, he was discouraged. He wanted to go home.

There was hope. His treatment would continue for cancer, but the patient could gain strength and independence with the help of a physical therapist.

According to some research, up to 90 percent of patients treated with radiation and 80 percent treated with chemotherapy experience some fatigue. An initial cancer diagnosis can account for 40 percent of patients who feel fatigue. The National Comprehensive Cancer Center (NCCN) developed guidelines for cancer-related fatigue, stating that exercise is the number one most effective non-pharmacologic treatment option.

In addition to fatigue, cancer and cancer treatments can cause pain, burning, numbness, tingling, cramps, and overall weakness. Physical therapy has proven to help with all of those symptoms. Movement can help patients breathe easier, increase their strength and posture, help heal from surgery, maintain body weight, improve range of motion, flexibility, strength and coordination, and balance, and elevate the patient’s mood.

“The goal is to access and evaluate the patient and determine the best way to help them,” said IU Health Physical Therapist Jennie Brouillette. With the patient who had been hospitalized and for a length of time, Brouillette began with encouragement.

“There may be some fear or reluctance so we start slowly. The goal was get the patient to return home so we focused on mobility - standing and then walking,” said Brouillette, who is a certified oncology rehabilitation specialist. In addition to working with surgical oncology patients at IU Health University Hospital Brouillette works with outpatients in Neuro-rehabilitation and Robotics. She received her Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Indiana University in 2012 and has an undergraduate degree in Biology from Indiana University. She is also a guest teacher for physical therapy students.

“The process may start with getting the patient out of bed and into a chair and then move to full laps around the unit. The idea is to build strength and confidence so the patient can safely return home,” said Brouillette, who has been at IU Health for 10 years.

Physical therapy and rehabilitation services are different for each patient. In general, the American Cancer Society and the American College of Sports Medicine suggests cancer survivors avoid inactivity and return to normal activity as soon as possible after prognosis and treatment, take part in regular physical activity – starting slowly and building up to at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of intensive activity a week, exercise at least 10 minutes at a time, and include resistance training and stretches two days a week.

In addition to physical therapy, recovering patients are encouraged to maintain a healthy weight and eat right to reduce the risk of other chronic illnesses or a second cancer.



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