The Role of Cancer Rehab and Physical Therapy in Supporting Metastatic Cancer Patients: Evidence-Based Approach for Enhanced Well-being

Older man doing low-stress osteoporosis exercises with resistance bands

Receiving a metastatic cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and life-altering. While the primary focus of treatment is managing the disease, the role of exercise in supporting overall health and well-being cannot be understated. Physical activity, tailored to individual capabilities and guided by medical professionals, has shown numerous benefits for cancer patients, including those with metastatic cancer. Physical therapists that work specifically with cancer patients play a crucial role in the comprehensive care of individuals with metastatic cancer.  By addressing physical limitations, managing symptoms, preventing deconditioning and improving overall function, physical therapy can significantly contribute to the well-being and quality of life of metastatic cancer patients. In this blog post, we will explore the safety of exercise for individuals with metastatic cancer and how it can contribute to enhancing physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

Understanding Metastatic Cancer

Metastatic cancer occurs when cancer cells spread from the primary site to other parts of the body through the lymphatic system or bloodstream. The diagnosis often carries significant challenges and requires comprehensive medical management.

There are treatments for most types of metastatic cancer. Often, the goal of treating metastatic cancer is to control it by stopping or slowing its growth. Some people can live for years with metastatic cancer that is well controlled. Other treatments may improve the quality of life by relieving symptoms. This type of care is called palliative care. It can be given at any point during treatment for cancer. The treatment that you may have depends on your type of primary cancer, where it has spread, treatments you’ve had in the past, and your general health.

Benefits of Exercise for Metastatic Cancer Patients:

Recent research has shed light on the potential benefits of exercise for individuals facing metastatic cancer, leading to more holistic approaches to cancer care.  The benefits can include:

  1. Improved Physical Function: Regular exercise is associated with enhanced cardiovascular health, increased muscle strength, improved endurance, and better overall functional independence for metastatic cancer patients. These benefits can support individuals in managing treatment side effects, such as fatigue and decreased muscle mass. Physical therapy can provide tailored exercise programs and energy conservation techniques to combat fatigue and improve overall endurance.  For more information on combating cancer related fatigue, read here:
  2. Self-Efficacy and Quality of Life: Physical therapy can enhance self-efficacy, empowering patients to actively participate in their treatment and daily activities. Exercise has been shown to contribute to an improved quality of life for individuals with metastatic cancer. Engaging in physical activity can boost mood, reduce anxiety and depression, promote better sleep patterns, and provide a sense of control over one's own body and well-being.
  3. Reduced Treatment Side Effects: Research studies have highlighted the positive impact of physical therapy on managing various symptoms and treatment side effects experienced by metastatic cancer patients. Exercise can help mitigate treatment side effects commonly experienced by individuals with metastatic cancer.  These include side effects such as fatigue, nausea, and pain. Although it may seem counterintuitive, appropriate exercise can improve energy levels and overall well-being. Physical therapy can provide tailored exercise programs and teach you energy conservation techniques to combat fatigue and improve overall endurance.
  4. Pain Management: Physical therapy interventions, such as therapeutic exercises, manual therapy, and modalities can have positive effects on pain reduction for individuals with metastatic cancer. Physical therapists can employ a variety of techniques to address pain, including soft tissue mobilization, stretching, and strengthening exercises.
  5. Lymphedema Management: Metastatic cancer patients may develop lymphedema, a condition characterized by swelling in the arms or legs. Physical therapy can offer manual lymphatic drainage, compression therapy, exercise prescription, and education on self-care techniques to aid in improved management of lymphedema and overall comfort of the individual.

The Safety of Exercise for Metastatic Cancer- Considerations

  • Medical Guidance: It is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any exercise program. The medical team will consider individual factors, including overall health, specific cancer treatments, and physical abilities, to provide tailored recommendations.
  • Personalized Exercise Plan: Each person's exercise plan should be designed to match their capabilities and goals. This may involve a combination of aerobic exercises, strength training, and flexibility exercises, adjusted according to the individual's condition and tolerance.
  • Gradual Progression: Starting slowly and gradually increasing intensity and duration is important for preventing injuries and avoiding overexertion. It is essential to listen to one's body, adapt the exercise routine as needed, and communicate any concerns or symptoms to the healthcare team.
  • Supervision and Support: For individuals with metastatic cancer, it is beneficial to work with an exercise professional experienced in cancer care or seek guidance from a specialized oncology rehabilitation program. This ensures proper supervision, guidance, and adaptations to the exercise routine as needed.

While a metastatic cancer diagnosis can present significant challenges, incorporating regular exercise into a comprehensive cancer care plan can offer a range of benefits for physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

Under the guidance of healthcare professionals, individuals with metastatic cancer can find safe and effective ways to engage in physical activity that is tailored to their needs and abilities. By prioritizing self-care and embracing exercise as a complementary tool, patients can empower themselves to lead a more fulfilling life despite the difficulties posed by metastatic cancer. Always remember that exercise should be approached in consultation with healthcare providers, ensuring a personalized approach that optimizes safety and well-being.

As we have discussed, physical therapy plays a vital role in supporting metastatic cancer patients by managing symptoms, improving physical function, and addressing psychosocial well-being. With evidence-backed interventions and personalized approaches, physical therapists can provide comprehensive care that enhances the overall well-being and quality of life of individuals facing metastatic cancer. Collaborating with a multidisciplinary healthcare team, physical therapy empowers patients to navigate the challenges of metastatic cancer while striving for optimal health and wellness.