April is Occupational Therapy (OT) month, and it is with gratitude and humble appreciation that I come to reflect upon my time as an OT working with cancer patients and their loved ones. Working in cancer care across the continuum has been one of my life’s greatest honors, and I wish to take a moment and advocate for the OT profession and the impact it may have on the lives of those diagnosed with cancer.
OTs are an integral part of the healthcare team and are uniquely positioned to help rehabilitate and address many of the areas in which cancer patients may be affected due to their diagnosis and subsequent treatments. Surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, as well as other cancer interventions have the potential to profoundly impact someone’s life and their abilities to complete meaningful tasks. An OT can help you to leverage your unique strengths and abilities, as well as problem-solve through the challenges that arise, to help you live your life to its fullest amid a cancer diagnosis. OTs can work with cancer patients and their loved ones at any stage in their trajectory including active treatment, survivorship, as well as the closure of one’s life.
At the heart of the OT profession are occupations, which are largely seen as tasks and activities that are deeply important to an individual, play a key role in their identity, and align with how they need or wish to fill their time. Occupations can range from things such as:
- Completing self-care and hygiene.
- Engaging in instrumental activities such as caring for children and pets, as well as completing household tasks like laundry and cooking meals.
- Attending to healthcare needs through organizing and sorting complex medication routines, empowering self-advocacy with the healthcare team, in addition to physical and cognitive learning of how to handle medical supplies (i.e. ostomy care, prosthesis donning/doffing, self-catheterization, etc.).
- Cultivating new hobbies and leisure pursuits as well as supporting continued engagement in established interests.
- Maintaining one’s ability to stay safe and complete tasks in their work (both paid and volunteer).
- Optimizing sleep engagement including getting sufficient rest and relaxation.
- Fostering social circles through friendships, relationships, and/or intimate partnerships.
Some patients may find that they’ve experienced new or lasting physical, cognitive, or emotional barriers to engagement in these meaningful occupations. OTs will become a partner in your care and seek to understand your unique interests and priorities, champion current abilities, and craft a tangible plan for addressing the functional challenges that keep individuals from engaging in the activities that enrich their life.
OTs can provide invaluable caregiver support as loved ones come to learn or different new ways of assisting their loved ones while also protecting themselves and conserving their energy. Some OTs also have specialty certification in working with those with lymphedema, which is characterized by chronic swelling that can arise after some surgeries or radiation treatment which can complicate some daily activities and energy levels. Chemo-brain is a commonly cited frustration for those going through treatment, and an OT may be able to give you helpful cognitive strategies to buffer impacts that treatment may be having on your memory, problem-solving, attention to tasks, etc. OTs not only work with you on developing new techniques, but they take particular interest in ensuring these are relevant and attainable things for you to apply in your daily life. For instance, OTs have vested interest in ensuring you’re able to apply these skills for needed tasks such as balancing a checkbook, navigating your phone, and completing schoolwork. Neuropathy and fatigue are other common side effects of chemotherapy, and an OT can help you to learn new adaptations for doing daily tasks, advise you on modifications for the home to ensure your safety, as well as teach you ways to protect your energy for the things that are important to you.
OTs are well-equipped to address mental health and psychosocial barriers to occupations in collaboration with other mental health providers. Depressive and anxiety symptoms can limit one’s engagement in previously enjoyed tasks, and those with prior mental health diagnoses could benefit from additional symptom management and emotional regulation strategies to promote their quality of life and wellness during cancer treatment. From the top of your head to the bottom of your toes… an OT is there to meet you where you’re at and partner with you in your care.
What is important to you, is important to us. If you feel that you may benefit from any of the above-mentioned services, you may consider asking your healthcare provider about a referral to OT services. We eagerly await getting the opportunity to come to know you and to help you develop strategies for the skills of living (and thriving!) during your cancer trajectory.
Resources for Learning More:
American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) Fact Sheet “OT’s Role with Oncology”: https://www.aota.org/-/media/corporate/files/aboutot/professionals/whatisot/rdp/facts/oncology%20fact%20sheet.pdf
Cancer.net – “Occupational Therapists in Cancer Care”: https://www.cancer.net/blog/2021-11/spotlight-occupational-therapists-cancer-care
Pergolotti, M., Williams, G. R., Campbell, C., Munoz, L. A., & Muss, H. B. (2016). Occupational therapy for adults with cancer: why it matters. The oncologist, 21(3), 314-319.
Tiffany Bystra is a registered and licensed occupational therapist (OT) who has spent her career working primarily in acute care and oncology. As a late-stage cancer survivor herself, Bystra has a passion for psychosocial oncology and the delivery of compassionate healthcare for cancer patients and their loved ones. Bystra now teaches within OT curriculum at The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences in Austin, TX, and is currently engaged in Master of Science in Social Work courses with The University of Louisville in their Psychosocial Oncology concentration. Taking her unique perspective as an OT and a student of social work, Bystra facilitates resource navigation services with the Cancer Support Community and is a member of both the Association of Oncology Social Work (AOSW) and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and their newly formed Cancer Community of Practice.