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Overview

Cancer treatments are improving—but there are almost always side effects. Sometimes they are temporary, lasting only during treatment or shortly after; other times, though, side effects can last for years. 

The side effects of cancer treatment vary from one person to the next. Some people experience few issues, while others have debilitating side effects. Their onset and duration may vary as well. It’s important to talk to your oncologist about any symptoms you experience, so you can get help through doctor-directed cancer rehabilitation services. These are available to manage treatment side effects, improve recovery, ease pain, and increase mobility and function. With follow-up care, therapy, and emotional support, your quality of life can improve.

"Cancer treatments can cause a variety of short- and long-term physical side effects,” says Scott J. Capozza, MS, a board certified oncology rehabilitation specialist at Yale New Haven Hospital’s Rehabilitation Department and Smilow Cancer Hospital’s Survivorship Program. “Cancer-related fatigue and peripheral neuropathy [nerve damage] can last for years following the completion of treatment; some issues such as lymphedema [arm or leg swelling] may not appear until months or years later.” 

Rehabilitation professionals who are specially trained to treat the physical side effects of cancer treatment can address many of these concerns. “Understanding the cause of these side effects allows them to develop individualized treatment plans to increase patient mobility, improve function, and positively impact quality of life," says Capozza.

What kinds of side effects do cancer patients experience?

Some side effects can be short-term, occurring just during treatment, such as the nausea, hair loss, and skin problems associated with chemotherapy. Side effects related to radiation or cancer surgery may linger for a while and then fade away. But in other cases, cancer survivors must cope with treatment side effects, like fatigue, for a long time after treatment.

Depending on where a tumor is (or was) located, mobility or function can be impacted. Surgeries to remove central nervous system tumors, for example, carry a risk of impaired fine- and gross-motor skills. Treatment for head and neck cancers may affect speech and swallow ability, temporarily or even permanently. And when an organ such as an ovary or prostate is removed due to a malignancy, continence and/or sexual function can be an issue. These are just a few of many possible side effects that cancer patients may need help addressing through rehabilitation services.    

What kinds of cancer rehabilitation services are there?

At Yale Cancer Center, a variety of services are available to help cancer patients:

  • Occupational therapy involves exercises, techniques, and tools to help improve fine-motor skills you use for everyday tasks, including eating, writing, social interactions, and self-care. Occupational therapists can also provide strategies to address issues such as chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, which is a numbness, tingling, or painful sensation in the hands and feet.
  • Physical therapy helps relieve pain and rebuild muscle strength, function, and mobility through a variety of provider-guided exercises and stretching activities. It also helps improve balance (to prevent falls) and overall quality of life.
  • Sexual intimacy programs give survivors of gynecologic and urologic cancers support to help ease symptoms related to their cancer treatment, which can include sexual dysfunction, body image issues, and loss of libido. Some physical therapists are also specifically trained in women’s health, which can address incontinence and retrain pelvic floor muscles weakened from cancer surgery and radiation therapy.
  • Speech and swallow therapy may be helpful before, during, and after treatments of some cancers, such as those affecting the head and neck. Speech therapists can help improve speech and swallowing skills, and registered dieticians can also provide strategies to help overcome loss of appetite.
  • Support groups and counseling can help the individual and family cope with the disease and any emotional after-effects such as anxiety, depression, and fear of recurrence. 

How can I access cancer rehabilitation services at Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital?

Your medical oncologist may recommend rehabilitation and/or counseling to address any side effects you may be experiencing. At Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital, here are some ways to get the help you need: 

  • For rehabilitation services at Smilow Cancer Hospital, such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, or speech, call (203) 200-6811.
  • For Integrative Medicine, located on the first floor of Smilow Cancer Hospital, call (203) 200-6120. Many of the services can be provided on your floor or in your room while you are in the hospital, and are offered free of charge if you are undergoing cancer treatment at Smilow.
  • For help with skin, hair, and nail-related issues, such as blisters, rashes, dermatitis, burns, and fingernail infections that can be severe enough to interrupt treatment, contact Yale Cancer Center’s Onco-Dermatology Program at Smilow.
  • For sexual intimacy issues, visit Smilow’s Sexuality & Intimacy Program.
  • Pain management is available through Smilow’s Multidisciplinary Pain Program. A team of Yale Cancer Center physicians develops an individualized plan to help improve your comfort level. Treatments can be used to help relieve discomfort in patients, for example, with metastatic tumors in the spine, bones, and soft tissues.
  • Cancer survivors are urged to contact the Smilow Survivorship Program. Our team creates a personalized survivorship plan that includes nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle changes to help adults transition to life after cancer. Our HEROS Survivorship Program provides education and guidance to help childhood cancer survivors (anyone diagnosed with a childhood cancer before age 21) improve health, quality of life, and longevity as early as six months to one year out from treatment. We follow our survivors for life, without the need to transition to another clinic.

What is unique about Yale Medicine’s approach to helping cancer survivors through rehabilitation services?

“At Smilow, we have a growing oncology rehab program that was formed from patient feedback and offers patients a personalized approach to either maintaining or building strength during and after cancer treatment,” says Yale Medicine’s Tara Sanft, MD, director of the Surviorship Program. "The unique approach Yale Medicine takes to survivorship care includes a multitude of programs aimed to enhance survivors' quality of life after treatment. The rehabilitation services are top notch at addressing functional deficits, treating lymphedema, and, in the survivorship clinic, prescribing personalized exercise plans to help survivors realize their goals."