Tips for Treating Patients With Cancer As An Occupational Therapist

According to The National Cancer Institute, the number of people living with and beyond a cancer diagnosis reached nearly 16.9 million in 2019 and is expected to rise to 22.2 million by 2030. Additionally, the National Cancer Institute estimates that 39.5% of both men and women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.

With those numbers, if you are an occupational therapist working in inpatient rehab, acute care, home health, or even outpatient settings, you will likely treat patients with a cancer diagnosis at one point or another. In actuality you could be working with people someone affected by cancer in any OT setting, as it affects people across the lifespan. 

Individuals diagnosed with cancer can have increasing limitations in their functional status, affecting their ability to participate in basic and instrumental activities of daily living. In some cases, the cancer itself will affect nerve and muscular function. In other instances, the patient may be most affected by side effects from chemotherapy and radiation. This can cause increased pain or neuropathy, decreased strength, activity tolerance, mobility, balance, or cognition.

Since occupational therapy can be such an important tool in improving cancer patients’ quality of life, it is important to consider the benefits that OT can offer to achieve improved quality of life for this population of patients. Improving your patient’s quality of life through OT will also indirectly improve the families that assist with care of these patients.

As stated above, cancer can contribute to a multitude of factors affecting quality of life and independence with ADLs. Occupational therapists can incorporate the following approaches to address these deficits.

Remediation Following Cancer-Related Deficits

Cancer treatments and cancer itself can lead to a myriad of difficulties. Occupational and physical therapists, and speech therapists if applicable, can take a team approach to address these deficits.

Fatigue and decreased activity tolerance are extremely common and make daily tasks much more of a challenge. This can best be addressed with graded home exercise programs encouraged to gradually increase endurance over time. Your patient may not have the ability to complete a full exercise program at one time, so a program may be modified to be completed in several small time periods throughout the day.

Even after the person’s cancer treatment is complete, they may experience long-term effects of the treatments. These may continue to limit participation which may last for months or years and may affect ongoing participation in daily activities (The Role of Occupational Therapy in Oncology, AOTA). When this is the case, OTs can continue to work with patients on their ongoing deficit areas through compensatory strategies, as seen below, to continue to help them achieve their goals. 

occupational therapy and cancer

Compensatory Strategies

Occupational therapy practitioners are special in the fact that we are well-versed in environmental modifications, adaptations, and compensatory strategies to make individuals diagnosed with cancers’ lives easier on a day to day basis. These adaptations can include home modifications like shower/tub seats, grab bars, or adaptive equipment for dressing, but also modifications for decreased cognitive functioning.

There are many energy conservation/work simplification strategies you can use to address cancer-related fatigue. The best recommendation may be to have the patient prioritize tasks. There are many work and household jobs that could be done either by someone else, or may not need to done at all.

Once tasks have been prioritized, then thought should be given to tasks that can be completed at the same time. For example, if the patient needs to get lunch in the kitchen, perhaps they can plan to get medicines at the same time so that they don’t have to make two trips. It may be beneficial to strategically place chairs throughout the house to allow the patient to complete tasks while sitting to conserve energy.

Psychological Strategies

OT can also help patients with a cancer diagnosis by addressing the psychosocial aspects of the disease. The patient may be worried if they will be able to return to their job or their hobbies. By incorporating patient-specific goals and tasks into the treatment plan, your patient can be reassured that returning to their previous life is a possibility.

Consider the example of a patient who loves to run, but is currently unable to do this because of fatigue. Encouraging the patient to begin a progressive walking program, running in water (though not in a public pool if they are immuno-compromised), or spending short periods of time on an elliptical, may be helpful to them. This is not just for the increased endurance, but also for helping them to see that they can reach their personal goal of getting back to running.

Occupational therapists can also provide client-centered coping strategies to help patients manage stress, depression, anxiety and pain associated with their cancer diagnosis and accompanying treatments. This can include relaxation techniques, mindfulness practices, and cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as providing active listening and emotional support. 



Caregiver Education

Education with the patient’s caregiver(s) is crucial to a good outcome for every cancer patient. The patient may be dealing with extreme fatigue and may not be able to complete every self-care or household task they were doing before. This will require the caregivers to complete all other necessary tasks. If caregivers are able to fully understand why the patient is having difficulty, and they can be educated on how long this symptom lasts, they may be more inclined to help for an extended period of time.

Caregivers will often assist with driving patients to appointments, making sure home exercise programs are completed as well as assisting their family member with activities of daily living. Some caregivers are inclined to do all these tasks for the patient with no assistance from the patient. While this may be necessary in some instances, many times it will be most beneficial if the patient is involved and able to assist as able.

So instead of the caregiver fully dressing the patient, they may provide assistance to the patient, allowing the patient to complete the task on their own as much as possible. This approach encourages the patient to be as independent as much as possible, and will ultimately relieve the caregiver of this task.

Educating the caregiver that this approach is best for the patient (and for the caregiver as well) will increase the likelihood that they will follow through with this at home. You can also provide the patient and caregiver with adaptive equipment education to help maintain as much of the patient’s independence as possible.

How to Obtain a Referral for Occupational Therapy Services

If you are a patient or family member interested in receiving occupational therapy services, you can obtain a referral or prescription from your doctor for these services. If you are in the inpatient/hospital setting, it’s an easy order to obtain as there are generally already occupational therapists and physical therapists working in the oncology and medical units that can help start the process while the individual is in the hospital.

Outpatient doctor’s orders will most likely be written by either a family practice physician or by the oncologist. These therapy services will typically be provided in an outpatient occupational therapy clinic or via home health occupational therapy if the patient is unable to leave their home.

In Conclusion

When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, their lives may change immeasurably. There are so many different physical, mental, and emotional changes that will affect the patient being able to live their lives in the same manner they did before. It is our job as occupational therapists to first understand who the patient is and what is most important to them.

Based on our analysis and understanding of their condition, it is our responsibility to help our patients get back to their normal lives as they see it – despite the effects the cancer might have on them. We hope these ideas shared here will help you feel more prepared to do just that.

Additional Resources and References

Occupational Therapy’s Role in Cancer Survivorship as a Chronic Condition (AJOT, 2020)

Occupational Therapy Interventions for Adults With Cancer (AJOT, 2020)

Pergolotti M, Deal AM, Lavery J, et al (2015): The prevalence of potentially modifiable functional deficits and the subsequent use of occupational and physical therapy by older adults with cancer.

This post was originally published on August 6, 2017 and last updated on April 25, 2024.


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