Physical therapy is becoming more publicly recognized and physician-recommended as an important complementary treatment to help patients improve physical function and maintain their quality of life throughout cancer treatment.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than one million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year. In fact, the projected figure for 2015 is 1,658,370. The most common cancers include lung, colorectal, prostate and breast cancers. Although there are many different types of cancer, treatment usually involves a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

In the past, cancer patients were likely told to rest and reduce their physical activity during cancer treatment. However newer research is proving that physical activity actually helps patients maintain independence and tolerate treatment.

Some of the most common side effects of cancer treatment, according to the National Cancer Institute, include: fatigue, decreased appetite, edema, sleep disturbances, pain, skin changes and changes in bowel and bladder function. Physical therapy can help with many of these conditions. In addition, recent research printed in the Journal of American Medicine indicates that adequate, appropriate exercise can reduce the rate of breast cancer mortality and recurrence by up to 50 percent. It can also reduce fatigue, help patients maintain strength and promote a hopeful, positive attitude among those battling this disease and its side effects.

There are a couple of very important reasons why someone undergoing cancer treatment should not embark on a physical activity program all on their own. First, in order to ensure a safe level of exercise, it is important to have the supervision and expertise of a physical therapist to assess the current fitness level of an individual. The assessment is what determines the type and intensity of exercise is most appropriate. It is also essential that exercise programs for cancer patients be started out slow and monitored throughout the progression of their program to ensure safe, maintainable progress towards personal goals.

Secondly, having the expert eye of a physical therapist to help monitor for any developing adverse conditions can also be crucial. Cancer patients are at higher risk for development of conditions such as neuropathy, lymphedema and infection. A physical therapist, skilled in cancer rehabilitation, has the training to watch out for signs and symptoms of secondary conditions. Finally, a physical therapist will be an encouraging, understanding resource for information and accountability.

If you or a loved one is currently undergoing treatment for cancer or has recently undergone treatment, physical therapy can show you the ropes for developing a healthy lifestyle that can reduce the risk of mortality and recurrence, as well as improve quality of life through reduction of side effects. Be sure to ask your doctor if a cancer-based physical therapy program can benefit you.

Sarah Wattier and Janelle Ponder work for Wyoming Rehab, a department of Sheridan Memorial Hospital.