Avoiding and Dealing with Falls During Cancer Treatment

A person who is unsteady on their feet, a little confused, or just weak is at high risk for falling. A person who has these problems is likely to fall while trying to get out of bed. Or they can fall off the toilet, slip in the bathtub or shower, or lose their balance as they’re walking.

What the patient can do

  • If you notice problems with weakness or poor balance, ask for help getting up or walking.
  • If you fall, let your cancer team and your caregivers know. They’ll want to help prevent future falls, and might need to check you for injuries.
  • If you have trouble walking, ask about a home health nursing visit. Home health nurses may be able to make your home safer for you. They also have ways to help you walk more safely.
  • If a walker or wheelchair is recommended, keep it by the bed or next to where you sit. Use it every time you get up, even for short trips.

What caregivers can do

  • When the patient needs to get out of bed, first sit them on the side of the bed for a minute or so. This will help if changing position makes them feel dizzy or unsteady.
  • If the patient is unsteady, help them walk.
  • If the patient feels light-headed, stay with them when they go to the bathroom.
  • Remind the patient to call for help before trying to get up.
  • To help in the tub or shower, use bath mats or non-slip stickers. You can also use a shower stool or chair so the patient can sit while bathing.
  • Keep electric cords off the floor. Walking paths need to be clear of clothing, throw rugs, and other items that may cause tripping or slipping.
  • Tape the edges of rugs to the floor.
  • Have a bedpan or urinal within easy reach, place a commode near the bed, or put the bed near a bathroom.
  • The patient should wear shoes or non-skid slippers when walking or standing. Avoid using slippery shoes or open-heel bedroom slippers.
  • Ask about a home health nursing visit to check your home for ways to prevent falls. Handrails, bedside commodes, grab bars, shower chairs, and other tools can help keep some patients from falling.

If the patient falls:

  • Leave the patient where they’ve fallen until you can find out if there are serious injuries. If the patient isn’t breathing, call emergency services (911) unless the patient is in hospice or has a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care that states they do not wish to be revived.
  • If the patient is unconscious, bleeding, or has fluid draining from the mouth, ears, or nose, call the cancer team or 911 right away.
  • If the patient can answer you, ask if they have any pain.
  • Check the patient’s head, arms, legs, and buttocks for cuts and bruises, and look to see if anything looks strange or out of shape (possibly due to a broken bone).
  • Apply ice packs and pressure to any bleeding area. (Put ice in a plastic bag and wrap bag in a towel.)
  • If you can’t move the patient, make them as comfortable as possible until help comes.
  • If the patient is not in pain and isn’t bleeding, help them back to a bed or chair. (If possible, get help moving the patient.)

Call the cancer team if the patient:

  • Notices new weakness, numbness, or change in mental status (such as if the patient is confused, doesn’t know where they are, becomes forgetful, or isn’t making sense)
  • Gets weak or unsteady enough that a fall is likely
  • Is not breathing
  • Is bleeding, has fluid draining from the mouth, ears, or nose, or is unconscious
  • Is concerned about possible injury from a fall

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: June 8, 2015 Last Revised: June 8, 2015

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