Occupational Therapy and Cancer Recovery

Julie Entwistle, MBA, BHSc (OT), BSc (Health / Gerontology)

When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was required to have a mastectomy.  Feeling helpless but wanting to support her, I sent her a list of the things we could do together pre-surgery.  This included anything from loading up an iPod with her favorite tunes and stand-up comedic acts, sorting my ridiculous stack of family photos, scrapbooking, and of course some retail and spa therapy.  I figured the less time she spent just waiting for surgery, thinking and processing what was to come, the less this diagnosis would impact her now and into the future.  She responded to my ideas with something along the lines of “you should help people through tough times for a living” and I reminded her that my job as an OT allowed me to do just that.

The yellow daffodils in April signify that this is the month of Cancer Awareness.  Defined, the word “Cancer” is a blanket term used to describe the abnormal growth of cells in any part of the body.  There are more than 100 types of cancer, which may affect specific tissues, organs, blood, or lymphatic systems. Cancer remains the leading cause of death in Canada, responsible for about 30% of all deaths in our country.  Many of us have been affected by cancer, either personally, through friends or a loved one. My mom is only one example of how cancer has affected my family, and sadly I have countless other stories of friends and colleagues who have also been impacted.

Cancer and cancer treatment can lead to changes in how we do our daily activities due to physical, cognitive or emotional changes resulting from the diagnosis, resulting surgery, medications, chemo and radiation. For a cancer patient sometimes just doing daily activities leaves little energy for leisure, social, or work-related tasks.  Common side effects of cancer or its treatment include fatigue, pain, weakness, cognitive difficulties, anxiety or depression, and changes in self-esteem or self-image. Each person diagnosed with cancer will experience different challenges in his or her participation in various daily activities and life roles over the course of the disease.

Occupational therapists have knowledge and expertise to allow individuals with cancer to do the things they want and need to do to maintain their level of independence and quality of life. Occupational therapy services are helpful for individuals throughout the continuum of cancer care, including those who are newly diagnosed, undergoing treatment, receiving hospice or palliative care, or who are survivors reintegrating into previous roles. Caregivers also benefit from the training and education provided by OT’s as this arms them with the essential tools to offer support and assistance to their loved ones when performing daily, important, and meaningful activities. Some of the things occupational therapists can help with include:

  • Education on management of activities of daily living (ADLs) such as bathing and dressing through adaptations to the activity and environment, and/or the use of assistive devices.
  • Sleep and fatigue management such as education in and demonstration of energy conservation and relaxation management techniques to support health and the ability to participate in purposeful roles.
  • Cognitive strategies to address memory, organizational executive function deficits, and low-energy tasks that focus on restoring engagement in daily occupations such as sitting in the park, reading a newspaper, or conversing with a friend.
  • Therapeutic exercise and positioning to maintain functional range of motion, mobility, and strength such as home exercise programs, splinting, wheelchair fitting, bed positioning, etc. to provide support and comfort.
  • Mental health treatment to encourage the return to life roles that will help increase mood, reduce depression, restore hope, and lessen anxiety.

Other roles for occupational therapy also include return to work involvement post-treatment, education on general health issues, and training on use of a prosthetic if an amputation was required.  Some therapists are also specifically trained to provide lymphatic drainage to reduce the swelling and pain that can result from the disease, its’ surgery or treatment.

So, for the month of April let’s honor those fighting and remember those that fought.  Buy some daffodils, donate, wear a ribbon, or call or visit with someone you know that has been impacted by this prevalent disease.


American Association of Occupational Therapists (2011).

Canadian Cancer Society (2013).