Physical Therapy Treatment for Cancer Patients

This blog post was reviewed by Inderjit Kainth, DPT, who has worked with Outreach since 2014.

What is Cancer?

It is the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells which may result in the formation of a mass known as a tumor.

Moreover, there are two types of tumors, benign and malignant.

Benign tumors lack the ability to invade adjacent cells and therefore, do not spread throughout the body. Malignant tumors, however, are able to invade nearby tissues and have the ability to metastasize or spread throughout the body wreaking havoc.

There are over a 100 types of cancer which can be further classified based on its origin. For example, Carcinoma is a type of cancer that originates in the skin or tissues that line our organs and account for 85% of cancer diagnosis. Sarcoma is a type of cancer that originates in connective tissue (bone, cartilage, fat etc.). Lymphoma is a cancer that originates within lymphocytes while leukemia is a cancer that originates in the bone marrow.

Common treatments of cancer include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, immunotherapy, hormone therapy all of which can have drastic side effects on the human body. Anemia, fatigue, weakness, swelling, neuropathies, nausea, and vomiting are a few effects of treatment that result in the decline of physical functioning of a patient.

Exercise as an Intervention for Cancer-Related Fatigue, Todd Watson et al.

Cancer-related fatigue is one of the most prevalent and stressful effects of cancer treatment and is defined as “persistent, subjective sense of tiredness related to cancer or cancer treatment that interferes with usual functioning”. It affects 70% – 100% of patients receiving radiation therapy, chemotherapy, biological response modifiers.

It is recommended that low to moderate intensity physical therapy intervention be provided throughout duration of cancer treatment being progressive and predominantly aerobic in nature. One Particular article that was studied within this publication looked at randomized clinical trials testing exercise on patients with breast cancer.

Mock et al. compared patients with breast cancer who were receiving 6 week exercise program with patients who were only receiving usual care during course of treatment. This study had 46 subjects with stage 1 or 2 breast cancer and was randomly placed in control or experimental group. The study’s results show that the experimental group performed better than control on physical functioning, fatigue and anxiety scales.

Physical Therapy

Patients undergoing cancer treatment will benefit from specific individualized exercise plans to help maximize functional independence while ensuring safety and prevention of further discomfort/ decline in functional ability.

Cardiovascular training including cycling, jogging, brisk walking, and swimming are great exercises to help target the heart and build aerobic endurance.

Manual therapy techniques such as massage will facilitate the reduction of edema or swelling within extremities that may arise from chemotherapy, radiation or surgical intervention. Stretching, and joint mobilization helps address joint/soft tissue abnormalities such as stiffness, rigidity, loss of range of motion from physical inactivity.

Furthermore, light-moderate intensity resistance training, isometric exercises are a great way to help counteract loss of muscle tone and strength.  Undergoing cancer treatments (chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, and immunotherapy) can be physically and emotionally draining on the body and, as a result, may lead to physical inactivity and decline in functional abilities.

Physical therapy is a great and a vital tool to help reduce the drastic side effects of cancer treatment while allowing for safe and proper return to optimal levels of functioning.


  • Cancer topics. Available here.
  • Cancer basics. Available here.
  • cancer Facts and Figures. Available here.
  • National Cancer Institute. Cancer classification. Available here.
  • Watson T, Mock V. Exercise as an intervention for cancer-related fatigue. Phys Ther. 2004 Aug;84(8):736-43. Review. PubMed PMID: 15283624.
  • Horneber M, Fischer I, Dimeo F, Rüffer JU, Weis J. Cancer-related fatigue: epidemiology, pathogenesis, diagnosis, and treatment. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2012 Mar;109(9):161-71; quiz 172. Epub 2012 Mar 2. PubMed PMID: 22461866; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3314239.

How Outreach Can Help

We provide in-home Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, and Speech Therapy to individuals that have a difficult time getting/going to an out-patient rehabilitation facility on a consistent basis, prefer not to go to a facility, or those that are more effectively treated within their home.

We also have an out-patient clinic at 1110 2nd Avenue in the Sutton Place/UES area where we provide therapy for those who are adamant about receiving care in a clinic setting. Our evaluations are 45 minutes and treatments are one-to-one with an ample amount of treatment time per client (no double bookings allowed.)