Easing the Pain, Slowing the Progress

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How Physical Therapy and Massage disciplines can help provide needed relief to patients with cancer

This year, some 1.7 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States. Additionally, just over 600,000 people will die of cancer during 2018.

Morbid statistics, to be sure, but according to the American Cancer Society, those numbers are considerably better than what could have been expected.

“Over the past decade of data, the cancer incidence rate (2005‐2014) was stable in women and declined by approximately 2 percent annually in men, while the cancer death rate (2006‐2015) declined by about 1.5 percent annually in both men and women,” read a recent summary of American Cancer Society statistics. “The combined cancer death rate dropped continuously from 1991 to 2015 by a total of 26 percent, translating to approximately 2,378,600 fewer cancer deaths than would have been expected if death rates had remained at their peak.”

These incremental, yet significant improvements can be attributed to a number of medical advances and research, but also to numerous therapies that are allowing people to live longer, happier, more productive lives following diagnosis.

Physical Therapy

Sometimes, cancer itself isn’t the culprit in a person declining health, mood, or pain. The treatment for the disease, rather, are so rigorous and demanding as to create their own separate set of symptoms and risk factors. Chemotherapy, of course, is the best-known of these treatments, but Is far from the only possible course.

The American Cancer Society strongly recommends a regular regiment of consistent physical exercise to people undergoing treatment for cancer to decrease feelings of fatigue and aid in maintaining the ability to perform daily activities. Studies have shown the statistical significance of exercise when it comes to ultimately surviving cancer or extending one’s lifespan or quality of life while living with the disease. This is where physical therapy can play a role.

If an individual’s course of treatment requires surgery, a pre-surgical evaluation from a PT can help to determine any issues that may need attention following the operation. Following surgery, a detailed physical therapy regimen can help patients to heal faster than they could on their own.

Here are just a few areas or conditions that can be eased or treated with the help of physical therapy:

  • Lymphedema—A condition that refers to swelling in an arm or leg, lymphedema is most commonly caused by the removal of lymph nodes as part of the course of cancer treatment. Physical therapists are well-versed in several courses of treatment to manage the condition and reduce or eliminate the resulting swelling. Manual lymph drainage, aerobic exercise and specialized lymphatic bandaging are among the most common methods.
  • Peripheral neuropathy—Abnormal nerve function experiences as pain, numbness, or tingling is commonly known as peripheral neuropathy and is fairly common in cancer survivors. PTs work to either improve nerve function, find means of compensating for lost function, or a combination of the two methods.
  • Urinary/sexual dysfunction issues—Incontinence or sexual dysfunction can be an unfortunate part of the normal course of recovery for men following prostate cancer treatment, or for women undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer. By working to strengthen the pelvic floor, physical therapists can help to improve urinary incontinence and ease pain as a result of sexual dysfunction.

One study from Physical Therapy Journal published in 2015 found that physical therapy services are most commonly sought for people surviving breast or genitourinary cancers, and that loss of strength or soft tissue dysfunction were the most commonly treated symptoms.

Massage Therapy

While physical therapy is meant to treat some of the side effects of cancer treatment, massage is intended as a complementary therapy—a relaxing, gentle means of restoring energy and ‘fullness’ to the body.

Cancer survivors have reported that they feel more ‘whole’ after a massage—the art restores their own ownership over their body and helps them to relax—both physically and mentally—during a trying time.

From a beneficial standpoint, studies have shown that massage can reduce pain and fatigue resulting from cancer treatment. Sleep, quality of life, and mental acuity have improved in some patients following massage treatment.

(The following section may seem routine or obvious to healthcare professionals; however, enough patients have voiced concerns that it seemed worthy of inclusion in this article.)

Some people have voiced concerns that cancer cells can spread throughout the body following a massage via the lymphatic system, the body’s own network or organs that transport lymphatic fluid.

While cancer may metastasize through the lymphatic system through the lymph nodes, circulation of lymph—via massage or otherwise—does NOT cause the spread of cancer. Researchers have shown that cancer develops and spreads because of changes to a cell’s DNA (genetic mutations) and other processes in the body.

Evidence has credited massage with creating the following effects in patients with cancer:

  • Reduction of anxiety and depression
  • Lowering of nausea and pain (this had a lower correlation and was not as prevalent)
  • Reduction of stress

Lastly, a large American study looked at the effects of massage therapy on almost 1300 people with cancer over three years. People in hospital had a 20-minute massage, and people treated as outpatients had a 60-minute session. The study found that overall, massage therapy reduced pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety and depression. The benefits lasted longer in the patients who had the 60-minute session.

While licensed massage therapists are more prevalent these days than in the past, experts still recommend finding a therapist who specializes in treatment of patients with cancer.

SOURCES: American Cancer Society, Cancer Council

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Rob Senior
Rob Senior

Rob has 15 years of experience writing and editing for healthcare. He previously worked for ADVANCE from 2002 to 2012.

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