Occupational therapists play an important role in helping cancer patients cope with their diagnosis and thrive as a cancer survivor. In the U. S. alone, there are an estimated 17 million cancer survivors left with an altered life and questions about how to continue. Including occupational therapy from the start of diagnosis, can help patients develop strategies to cope with treatment side effects, maintain strength, continue participation in activities most important to the patient, and better prepare patients for the long haul of cancer survivorship.
Occupational therapists can assist in several important areas:
Maximizing independence in ADLs and IADLs
Central to the role of occupational therapy is the expertise to assist patients maintain as much independence as possible. With their holistic view of patient health, OTs are skilled in determining what is important to a patient and then assessing the barriers to that goal. Compensatory strategies, environmental modifications and adaptive equipment can all come into play with an OT evaluation and recommendation.
OT are skilled in assisting patients who have been impacted cognitively whether it is as a side effect of cancer treatment or a result of the disease. OTs will assess a patient’s cognitive skills and their environment to measure the impact of the cognitive change on day-to-day functioning. From a patient-centered approach, OT can recommend strategies to mitigate the impact of cognitive deficits and help patients maintain activities most important to them.
Energy conservation and sleep management
Fatigue is a common side effect, not only of the disease, but of cancer treatments and medications. In addition, worry and stress can impact a patient’s sleep. Occupational therapists can conduct a comprehensive assessment of side effects and evaluate the environment to provide patients with concrete strategies to mitigate fatigue during and after treatment. Task modification, pacing, and task prioritization are just a couple of the tools OT are trained to implement. In addition, OTs are trained to evaluate sleep hygiene and suggest modifications to both environment and habits that will assist patients improve quality of sleep.
A serious diagnosis, such as cancer, means a fire hose of medical information has just been turned on and aimed squarely at the patient. Health literacy is a real problem for many people, with only 12% of adults in the U. S. considered proficient in health literacy. OTs can assess health literacy levels, make sure their interventions are communicated in an understandable way, and communicate any concerns to the health care team. Providing understandable information is critical to the cancer patient’s ability to make informed decisions about their treatment.
Cancer diagnosis and treatment take a physical toll on a patient’s body. Supporting strength and flexibility through a therapeutic exercise routine can help patients cope with impacts of the disease and treatment like fatigue, and help them maintain independence in daily activities.
OTs, with a specialized certification, work with patients experiencing a sometimes debilitating condition – lymphedema. OTs are trained to provide instruction on wrapping or compression garments, skin care, and manual lymph drainage techniques. Many lymphedema patients can benefit from a specially designed therapeutic exercise program targeting active ROM, flexibility, and strengthening.
OT brings a myriad of important interventions to the team caring for cancer patients from newly diagnosed to long term survivors. Is OT on your treatment team?