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How Cancer & Cancer Survivorship Can Affect Balance

As an outpatient physical therapy clinic, we treat a wide variety of clientele with various diagnoses and personal goals. Our largest population of patients is those seeking to improve balance, reduce fall risk, and diminish fear of falling. A portion of these patients with balance oriented goals in mind are living with underlying diagnoses of which are likely to have a direct and significant impact on the body’s balance systems, strength, and thus balance confidence. Cancer and cancer survivorship in particular can propose a number of balance challenges. Let’s talk a bit more about managing cancer and the battle in favor of balance confidence!

Living with cancer or being a cancer survivor can disrupt the efficiency of balance systems in the human body. Both a cancer diagnosis in itself and the treatment methods used to mitigate can be culprits of impairing balance overall. Therefore, fall risk is a primary concern in patients living with cancer diagnoses, whether it be acutely or years down the road as a survivor. Here are some of the ways that cancer can impact fall risk:

  • Cancer-related fatigue can contribute to a lack of environmental awareness

  • Generalized muscular weakness can cause changes in the way that the body operates and is correlated with being 2.5x more likely for a fall

  • Vision changes can affect safety while moving as our visual systems are one of the top 3 balance systems in the human body

  • Treatment techniques (radiation, chemotherapy) can damage nerve sensation in the body, causing numbness in areas (like your feet) which are necessary for understanding walking patterns and detecting surface changes

  • Treatments can also have a lasting impact on the vestibular system or “inner ear,” another of the primary balance systems in the body necessary for balance confidence. Cancer treatments are often "ototoxic" meaning they are capable of causing permanent harm to this delicate organ - Click here to learn more about the Vestibular System.

Monitoring our bodies, remaining honest with our individual needs, and seeking help are all critical to our health and independence! As someone living with a cancer diagnosis, remaining aware of the factors that may predispose you for a fall is key. Any one of the following considers you at a higher risk for falling:

  • Having had a fall in the last year

  • Difficulty walking without support (using your hands while walking to hold onto walls or furniture)

  • Difficulty maintaining balance while standing still or walking

  • Feeling like you are going to fall when you close your eyes or make a turn

  • Requiring help with activities of daily living (bathing or preparing meals)

  • Abnormal sensation in hands and/or feet (numbness, tingling, pins & needles)

  • Urinary incontinence (having to rush to the restroom)

  • Having a fear or falling or lacking balance confidence

Be mindful of your symptoms. If any one of the above bullet points feels relevant to your own life there are a variety of steps you can take to intervene with your fear of falling. Consider having a conversation with your doctor. Pay close attention to the physical actions that challenge your balance confidence the most. Track what you notice by writing these down and share what you discover about yourself with your team of medical professionals; this will help to target a treatment plan suited to your needs.

Consider a physical therapist as a vital part of your team of medical professionals. A physical therapist will evaluate various aspects of your physical health such as your strength, flexibility, sensation and balance in order to collaboratively determine a treatment plan that incorporates your physical demands and personal goals. Balance oriented physical therapy often includes postural education, conditioning and strengthening, vestibular rehabilitation (training your inner ear to work better), and many educational components.

We are fondly welcome to be a resource to you, whatever step of the journey you may be on. Please contact us with any questions you may have regarding the contents of this article, our clinic, or physical therapy as a practice. We wish you all the best.

- The Balance Center Team

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