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Physical therapy vs Occupational therapy: What’s the difference?

Rehabilitation is an important aspect when recovering from or living well with breast cancer. Physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT) are terms we often hear when discussing rehabilitation, but we can sometimes confuse their true meanings. 

Being treated with surgery, radiation or chemo can take a huge toll on a person’s body. Surgery can put you at risk for lymphedema, your skin can develop scar tissue from radiation, and chemo just knocks the stuffing out of you while often causing signs of brain fog. Both PT and OT can go a long way in improving these side effects of treatment while also helping to regain a better sense of self and well-being. We’re breaking down these therapies, what their differences and similarities are and how they can help you improve your quality of life.

Physical Therapy

The purpose of physical therapy is quite straight forward. According to the World Confederation for Physical Therapy, “Physical therapists provide services that develop, maintain and restore people’s maximum movement and functional ability.” Simply put, they focus on improving you physically.

For people living with breast cancer, surgery and radiation can make a significant impact on your body. For people living with metastatic breast cancer, the cancer itself can also sometimes be the cause of your pain and mobility issues. PT can help improve all these side effects through different techniques.

Stretching: This is a great way to improve range of motion and can help to prevent signs of lymphedema. By starting slow with gentle stretching, you can begin to feel more mobility and less pain.

Exercises: If you’re worried about developing lymphedema, just looking to improve your range of motion from surgery or if your mBC is affecting other areas of your body, strength training exercises may be a helpful next step.

A physical therapist specializing in oncology can teach you different stretching techniques and exercises that you can do daily from your home and can also accommodate your limits so that you don’t overdo it and cause more damage.

Massage: This is another common form of physical therapy but can be done on its own as it has so many positive benefits. Not only can it help with range of motion and an improvement of lymphatic drainage, it can simply be relaxing, depending on the type of massage you’re receiving. But it is important to find a physical therapist or massage therapist trained in treating cancer or lymphedema.

Occupational Therapy

While PT focuses on the physical self, OT focuses on the whole body. According to the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists, occupational therapy is a “type of health care that helps to solve the problems that interfere with a person’s ability to do the things that are important to them”.

Occupational therapists trained in oncology are able to help with physical things like balance and coordination. But their abilities reach far beyond the physical limitations you may be experiencing:

  • They can teach you techniques to improve your memory or help you adapt your lifestyle to accommodate your cognitive fogginess.
  • They can show you simple daily lifestyle changes to improve your lymphedema, neuropathy or other common side effects of cancer. These changes may include things like skin care management, how to prevent infections, and how to adapt your clothing to fit your needs.
  • They can give you tips on conserving and improving your energy if the effects of chemo or other systemic therapies are taking their toll.
  • They can also help you develop coping strategies if you’re experiencing symptoms of stress or anxiety.

Overall, the goal of OT is to improve or make suitable accommodations for all aspects of your life if the cancer and treatment is making a significant impact on more than just your body.

The benefits of both OT and PT can be far reaching and can lead to a much better quality of life. Reach out to your oncology team to see if there are therapists in your community trained in treating cancer’s side effects. There may be costs associated with these therapists so check your private insurance coverage if you have it to see what can be covered. You can also ask your oncology team if there are any community groups that offer wellness services.