All March 10, 2022

Regaining range of motion that cancer took away

Why Physical Activity Should Be Part of Your Cancer Treatment Program

The side effects of cancer treatment are many.

If you have cancer, are a cancer survivor or know someone going through active treatment, you know all about side the effects.

A decrease in range of motion is one such effect. Muscles, joints and bones, are some of the most vulnerable areas and they need to be in sync. Radiation therapy often damages both cancerous and healthy cells for normal movement.  When weakened by cancer treatment, walking, balance, even simple movement, can become difficult.

You may think you're alone if you've experienced a loss in your range of motion. But mobility issues affect upward of 35 percent of individuals going through cancer or cancer treatment.

Problems with limb weakness and loss, gait disturbance, imbalance and other problems affecting normal walking are common in 25%–35% of cancer patients.


Losing range of motion and normal movement is a common cancer side effect. It has the potential to become painful and even debilitating, if left unchecked.

However, staying as active as possible can help and cancer rehabilitation can assist you in achieving that across the entire span of cancer treatment.

Cancer rehabilitation care meets individuals where they are in their cancer experience whether it is newly diagnosed, in active treatment or into survivorship.

Read on to learn more about range of motion issues and what can be done.

What is range of motion?

Range of motion (ROM) is a measurement of how far you can move or extend a body part.

It's different for everyone. Some people can bend at the waist and easily touch their toes. Others may only reach their knees because their joints and muscles don't have the same flexibility.

ROM can be active or passive. Active is deliberately moving your joint or body part. Passive is needing physical assistance or support to move a body part.

For those with decreased range of motion, most are referring to active ROM. Everyday tasks, like lifting groceries and washing the car, become difficult. Joint stiffness can cause pain and prevent you from doing simple things like tying your shoes.

ROM after cancer treatment

ROM limitations are most common among two cancer treatment patient populations:

  1. Those recovering from cancer surgery
  2. Those undergoing or recovering from cancer radiation therapy

That’s because surgery and radiation cause inflammation and soft tissue scarring (fibrosis) around the treated area. Fibrosis can lead to tightening of the muscles, joints and connective tissues around the treatment area. It can also cause pain.

Radiation therapy is often done in tandem with cancer surgery. This pairing reduces the risk of cancer spreading after removal.

Radiation therapy often damages both cancerous and healthy cells.  While healthy cells can often repair themselves, they do so with tissue that isn’t the same as before treatment. New tissue can be more fibrous and less resilient than normal muscle tissue. The can lead to reduced range of motion.

Why should I care about my ROM?

Good range of motion contributes to overall health.

ROM is more than just being able to lift your arm above your head or bend over.

ROM impacts your quality of life. That’s because restricting mobility for a sustained period effects other aspects of good health – many of which you may not be aware.

Improving ROM during and after cancer treatment has more benefits to overall health than you may think.

Take posture, for example. Posture is a foundation for overall well-being.

Good posture makes it easier to breathe, digest food and balance. But when range of motion is limited for muscles that aid good posture, everything else can go off course.
The slide into bad posture from weakened muscles can lead to issues like tension headaches and difficulty breathing.

Blood flow is another health aspect that ROM can wreak havoc.  At optimal health, blood carries oxygen throughout the body. Functioning properly, oxygen helps repair cells that provide energy.

Healthy blood flow:

  • Helps heal wounds
  • Keeps your brain sharp
  • Maintains heart health

Blood flow and oxygen levels become critical concerns when tied to ROM and posture.

With poor posture, vital organs are compressed. Blood flow slows and organs can't function at their best.

During and after cancer treatment, it's important to improve your active ROM.

Working with a cancer rehabilitation specialist helps maintain a focus on better body posture and movement. Both will support the healing process and a return to better health.

What can I do to improve my ROM?

It may sound simple, but one of the best ways to improve range of motion is to stay active.

A healthy activity level ensures the muscles and joints don’t become too restricted from tissue buildup.

Regular activity, as advised by your cancer rehabilitation team, can help loosen up tissue for freer movement. Research shows that physical activity is good for most cancer patients before, during and after cancer treatment.

General activity guidelines for cancer patients and survivors

  • Through all stages of your recovery, keep activity within your individual pain threshold. Don't compare or compete with others.
  • Keep stretching activities gentle -- don't push beyond your pain limit.
  • Set clear, achievable short- and long-term goals.
  • Revisit goals with your cancer rehabilitation specialist as you progress.
  • If exercise is an approved part of your therapy, do it when your energy levels are highest.
  • Keep your routine flexible.
  • Regularly talk with your rehabilitation team about progress.
  • Ask for help when you need it.

Cancer rehabilitation can help you reclaim your range of motion. ReVital specialists create personal health plans for people at all stages of the cancer journey.

Read about our unique cancer rehabilitation program for improving quality of life.