If you are facing a cancer diagnosis now—or if you ever face one in the future—cancer prehab could be your key to an easier, more complete recovery. According to Julie Silver, MD, a Harvard Medical School associate professor, cancer survivor and author of Before and After Cancer Treatment: Heal Faster, Better, Stronger, “From the minute you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re considered a survivor of the disease. Survivors need to do whatever they can to improve their health from the very start. Prehab helps you use the time between diagnosis and treatment most effectively by preparing you physically and emotionally.”

Cancer prehab services are provided by a range of specialists including physicians, psychologists, social workers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, nutritionists, exercise physiologists and others. The particular types of specialists assigned to your case will depend on your individual needs.

There are certain services that just about all patients can benefit from, regardless of the kind of cancer they have. These include…

Instruction in coping skills. Taking classes in deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and/or meditation can provide skills that will be invaluable for pain management and for coping with the inevitable fear and anxiety that a cancer diagnosis brings, Dr. Silver said.

Evaluation of caregiving needs. Prehab personnel will advise you on the type of assistance you may need during your treatment and recovery and help you coordinate the practical aspects of your care. You’ll resolve questions such as: Will you be going home or to a rehab center after surgery? Should any temporary changes be made in your home (such as setting up a ground-floor bedroom) to make it easier for you to navigate during your recovery? Who can help with meals, driving and other daily tasks during the weeks while you are healing? Addressing these issues now will save you a lot of stress and uncertainty later.

Targeted physical exercises. These can be hugely beneficial not only for overall health and strength but for helping you survive cancer. “Exercise may help someone to tolerate cancer treatment or, with some types of cancer, it might reduce the risk for recurrence. So a prehab program that gets a patient to be more active may increase the quality or maybe even the length of his or her life,” Dr. Silver noted. In some cases, improvements in physical well-being can expand patients’ treatment options, too. For instance, Dr. Silver said, “One study showed that prehab improved the respiratory status of lung cancer patients, even making some patients strong enough for surgery that had previously been ruled out.”

Help with smoking cessation, if needed. Without a doubt, nonsmokers heal better than those who continue to smoke. Quitting even shortly before cancer treatment begins can make a significant difference in your recovery.

Your specific diagnosis and state of health determine what additional services you might need. That makes sense—a colorectal cancer patient has different concerns than, say, a breast cancer patient. Examples include…

Skin-protection counseling for patients whose treatment will include radiation and/or chemotherapy (since both of these treatments can affect the skin).

Range-of-motion evaluation and exercises. For instance, postsurgical breast cancer patients often have shoulder pain and limited shoulder movement—so in prehab, patients can work on increasing range of motion prior to surgery so that the aftereffects will be less severe.

Pelvic-floor strengthening. After surgery and/or radiation for prostate cancer or gynecological cancer, many patients have trouble with urinary incontinence. Doing exercises to strengthen the muscles of the pelvic floor prior to treatment helps reduce the likelihood and severity of post-treatment incontinence.

Balance and gait evaluation and training. Working with a physical therapist to improve strength, balance and gait skills before cancer treatment helps patients recover mobility more quickly afterward, especially for older people who may already have some subtle balance problems. Yet young cancer patients can benefit, too, because chemotherapy may cause nervous system problems that affect balance and walking.


What comes after cancer prehab and treatment? Ideally, patients then attend cancer rehab—specially designed programs that hasten recovery and improve quality of life for cancer survivors. For more information on cancer rehab, click here.