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Survivorship: During and After Treatment

What Is Cancer Rehab?

Cancer rehab (or rehabilitation) is a supportive health care program. It can help with physical, mobility, and thinking and memory problems caused by cancer and its treatment. These problems can make it harder to do daily activities, return to work, or continue cancer treatment. They can have a lasting effect on your health and overall quality of life. The goals of cancer rehab are to:

  • Help you stay as active as possible and participate in family, work, and other life roles
  • Lessen the side effects and symptoms of cancer and its treatment
  • Help you stay as independent as possible
  • Improve your quality of life

Cancer rehab is given by trained professionals who you can work with during treatment, follow-up care, or long-term survivorship.

When should I get cancer rehab?

Ask your primary or cancer care team about cancer rehab any time you notice a change that makes you less active or makes everyday tasks more difficult. Ask yourself:

  • Am I having more trouble getting around?
  • Am I having pain, weakness, or other symptoms?
  • Am I having trouble thinking clearly?

It is important to ask about the changes you notice as soon as possible, so they can be corrected before they get worse. For example, a little bit of joint stiffness in your arm might cause you to use your arm less. Over time, your arm might become weaker and stiffer.

What is prehab?

You can also ask your cancer care team about seeing a cancer rehab professional before cancer treatment begins. The rehab professional can measure your strength, mobility, and activities before problems start. They might suggest things you can do to help you prepare physically and mentally for cancer treatment, called prehab.

You can then be monitored throughout treatment and beyond to catch issues before they become serious. This can increase your quality of life and reduce symptoms and problems that can impact your life.

What physical problems can cancer rehab help with?

Cancer and cancer treatment can cause many kinds of physical problems. Cancer rehab can help with:

Learn more about the physical side effects of cancer and cancer treatment.

What mobility problems can cancer rehab help?

Mobility problems affect how a person moves around. Cancer rehab can help if you have trouble:

  • Getting up off the floor
  • Getting out of a chair
  • Climbing stairs
  • Walking
  • Getting dressed
  • Showering

Learn more about staying safe and active during cancer treatment.

What cognitive problems can cancer rehab help with?

Thinking and memory problems are related to a person's mental abilities. Talk with your doctor about cancer rehab if you have:

  • Trouble multitasking
  • Trouble thinking clearly or mental fog
  • Memory trouble

Learn more about the attention, thinking, and memory problems that people with diagnosed with cancer can experience.

What specialists provide cancer rehab services?

There are different types of rehab professionals who may be part of your cancer care team. Depending on your needs, you might work with 1 or more of these specialists during cancer treatment and recovery.  

Dietitian or registered dietitian (RD): An expert in nutrition, food, and diet. Many RDs specialize in areas like weight management, exercise science, cancer care, or cardiac rehab. They can help you figure out the best eating plan for you during and after treatment. They can also help you learn ways to get enough food and fluids if you have trouble eating because of your cancer or treatment.

Occupational therapist (OT): A therapist who works with people who have problems doing daily activities. The OT can help you develop, recover, and improve the skills needed for daily living and working. They also work to prevent disability and maintain health.

Physical therapist (PT): A therapist who helps examine, test, and treat physical problems. The PT uses exercises, heat, cold, and other methods to restore or maintain the body’s strength, mobility, and function.

Physiatrist: Physiatrists are also called physical medicine and rehab specialists. They specialize in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of nerve, muscle, and bone disorders that can change how people move and function. These specialists often work with people on pain management.

Psychologist: This specialist assesses a person’s mental and emotional status and provides testing and counseling services to those who may have an emotional or mental health problem. Also called Cognitive psychologists or neuropsychologists.

Speech therapist: A health professional who is specially trained to work with people who have speech and swallowing problems. Speech therapists help people learn skills to communicate and also make sure that patients can safely eat and drink if they have swallowing disorders. Also called a speech pathologist.

Lymphedema therapist: These therapists evaluate and treat lymphedema (build-up of fluid in the tissues) by focusing on reducing swelling and controlling pain. They often use specialized massages, bandaging methods, compression garments, and exercises.

Vocational counselor: Vocational counselors support people who are returning to work during or after cancer treatment. They can help a person learn how to do daily job-related tasks more easily.

Recreational therapist: Recreational therapists help maintain a person's physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing by helping to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. They also help build a person's confidence and strengthen personal skills. Recreational therapy provides treatment services in many different ways, including through art, exercise, games, dance, and music.

Exercise physiologist: Exercise physiologists analyze a person's fitness to help them improve function. Using stress tests and other tools, they evaluate heart function and metabolism. They can also design fitness plans that meet the needs of people during and after cancer treatment. Learn more about exercise during and after cancer treatment.

Questions to ask the health care team

Consider asking your health care team about cancer rehab:

  • Are there ways I can prepare myself physically and mentally for cancer treatment?
  • How likely am I to need physical therapy, speech therapy, nutrition guidance, or another type of rehab during or after my cancer treatment?
  • What type of cancer rehab would you suggest for me?
  • How can this rehab help me?
  • Can you suggest a cancer rehab specialist who can help me with the side effect I am experiencing?
  • What can I do at home to stay as safe and independent as possible?

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Developed by the American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team with medical review and contribution by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

Hao J, Li Y, Swanson R, Chen Z, Siu KC. Effects of virtual reality on physical, cognitive, and psychological outcomes in cancer rehab: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Support Care Cancer. 2023 Feb;31(2):112.

Vargo MM. Outcome measures and patient-reported metrics in cancer rehab. Curr Oncol Rep. 2023 Aug;25(8):869-82. 

Last Revised: May 22, 2024

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