Physical Therapy for Cancer Patients

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Cancer surgery and treatments can impact your physical wellness in many ways, causing muscle weakness, difficulty balancing, limited range of motion, and more. Taking part in physical therapy as part of your recovery process can restore physical function and strength, helping you maintain or regain quality of life. We’ll teach you exercise routines and adaptive techniques that can help you feel better through treatment and recovery. Our physical therapists can meet with you whether you’re a Duke patient or coming from another health system. Once you set goals with our therapists, we’ll create a personalized plan that aligns with your healing and activity levels.

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Physical Therapy Benefits for Cancer Patients and Survivors

You can ask your oncologist for a referral to our care team, or your providers may recommend you start physical therapy with us to minimize physical challenges during treatment or recovery. Any level of exercise during and after cancer treatment can reduce side effects, help your body recover, and fight depression. Research from the American Society of Clinical Oncology has shown that physical activity can also lower the risk of cancer returning.

Our Locations

Our physical therapists see patients at the same location you receive cancer treatment, which includes two locations in Durham and one in Raleigh.

Evaluating Your Needs

We coordinate directly with your care team, so we understand your medical history when you meet with us for the first time. This helps our physical therapists lead a focused conversation about your goals and concerns and how treatment may impact your daily life. A physical exam and functional tests will set benchmarks for your range of motion, strength, and balance. The exam may include activities like timed walks, sitting and standing without support, or correcting balance after spinning in a circle.

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Physical Therapy Options for Cancer Patients

Treatments Overview

Cancer care requires individualized treatment, and our approach to your physical therapy will be the same. Many programs will incorporate some aspect of cardiovascular exercise (walking or jogging) and strength or resistance training. Your plan will take into account many factors including your energy level, physical abilities, exercise goals, and more. By staying active, you’ll be able to minimize muscle loss.

Traditional Physical Therapy Exercises


Your physical therapist may create a personalized list of exercises that focus on restoring your flexibility, strength, endurance, and proper biomechanics.

Manual Therapy


During manual therapy, a physical therapist uses their hands to massage, manipulate, and move joints to help with range of motion and mobility. This can decrease pain from muscle spasms, tension, and joint issues.

Lymphedema Treatments


As your body reacts to cancer treatment, your arms or legs may become swollen from a buildup of fluid. This is common and treatable. Our team includes certified lymphedema therapists who are trained to safely drain the fluid and can also fit you for compression bandages and devices to prevent future issues. We’ll teach you exercises that can minimize buildup and keep you active.

Pelvic Health


Some cancer treatments can create difficulties with incontinence or constipation. They may also cause pelvic pain that could limit your ability or interest in having sex. While your provider may prescribe medication to help with these issues, our physical therapists are trained in pelvic rehabilitation to treat these complications. They can create stretching and exercise routines to treat pelvic floor dysfunction in women or help men with erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems.

Consistently Ranked Among the Nation’s Best Hospitals

Duke University Hospital is proud of our team and the exceptional care they provide. They are why we are once again recognized as the best hospital in North Carolina, and nationally ranked in 11 adult and 9 pediatric specialties by U.S. News & World Report for 2023–2024.

Additional Programs and Care for Cancer Patients

Making Planning Easy for Cancer and Physical Therapy Treatments
Our physical therapists work collaboratively with your medical providers to offer comprehensive care at the same location receive your cancer treatment. You can have physical therapy sessions in either Durham or Raleigh, including on the same day as your treatment.

Free Exercise Programs
Exercise physiologists at the Duke Health & Fitness Center create individualized plans that support your diagnosis, recovery, and quality of life. Free, weekly consultations are offered for patients receiving or who have received care at Duke for a cancer diagnosis. Each session lasts 60 minutes and reviews ways to manage your fitness. If you have a Duke MyChart account, staff at the Health & Fitness Center can communicate with your care team about your wellness and create recommendations that best support you and your goals.

Coordination with Occupational Therapy Needs
People who receive chemotherapy can sometimes suffer from “chemo brain,” a slang term to describe how treatment might impact the speed of brain function. If you’re set to receive chemotherapy, we may refer you to an occupational therapist to assess your cognitive ability with word or memory tests.

Integrative Care
Duke offers holistic treatment options outside of physical therapy through Duke Health & Well-Being, where experts focus on the full spectrum of physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and environmental factors that influence and can improve your health. Our integrative medicine teams offer massage, yoga, nutrition counseling, psychotherapy, and more to enhance how your physical body interacts with your emotional well-being.

This page was medically reviewed on 10/22/2021 by