Prehabilitation for cancer treatment
How being ready can help you take control
17 October 2023
Most people know someone who’s been impacted by cancer and many have seen first-hand how gruelling cancer treatment and its side effects can be. But health professionals are now increasingly turning to prehabilitation to help better prepare patients mentally and physically for the challenges associated with cancer treatment. So what is prehabilitation and how can it help?
What is prehabilitation?
Simply put, cancer prehabilitation (or prehab) means getting your body and mind ready for cancer treatment. It prepares you where possible for radiation treatment, chemotherapy or surgery by improving your physical and mental health.
Prehabilitation complements traditional recovery or rehabilitation services to support better outcomes for people living with cancer. Prehabilitation strategies are based on:
- nutrition (what you’re eating)
- physical activity and exercise
- mental wellbeing (including reducing stress).
How can it help?
Cancer treatment has been compared to running a marathon and preparing for the treatment (the prehabilitation) is the training you do beforehand. The better shape you’re in mentally and physically, the more likely you are to complete the cancer treatment and have fewer complications.
Prehabilitation can help you feel more in control of your physical and mental health which will support your treatment and recovery. Prehabilitation can help you to:
- experience fewer side effects during and after treatment
- cope better with any side effects
- leave hospital sooner after surgery
- have more treatment choices
- have better long-term health
- resume your ‘normal’ life sooner, including working and social activities.
How does it work?
Prehabilitation supports people diagnosed with cancer to make lifestyle changes before their treatment starts. Individual strategies vary from person to person (depending on your individual needs, how much support you need, and what methods work best for you) but prehabilitation generally reinforces the value of nutrition, exercise and mental health in maintaining a healthy approach to life.
Prehabilitation can be done in whatever time you have before starting cancer treatment (it’s never too late) and supported by a range of health professionals, including exercise physiologists, physiotherapists, psychologists, occupational therapists and dietitians.
Nourishing your body
Getting your body in the best condition possible for cancer treatment includes eating a wide range of foods (in the right proportions) and drinking plenty of fluids to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. Your weight, including any weight loss or weight gain, can affect how well you cope with and recover from your cancer treatment. Stopping smoking and cutting down on alcohol (or drinking within the suggested limits) can also support your treatment and recovery by improving your overall health. Some people with specific types of cancer may also need to change their eating habits.
Focusing on your fitness
How physically fit and strong you are before starting cancer treatment contributes to your recovery. Good muscle strength is important so starting targeted exercises before surgery is a good way to support your rehabilitation. You can improve your fitness and build muscle in as little as two weeks so even if there's only a short time before your cancer treatment prehabilitation is still worthwhile. How much physical activity you can do and at what level differs from person to person but even something as simple as walking has been shown to help reduce levels of fatigue brought on by radiation treatment.
Looking after your mental wellbeing
A cancer diagnosis is a stressful time in anyone’s life and anxiety or depression can start at the time of diagnosis or when you're finishing treatment. Getting ready for treatment through prehabilitation will help you feel prepared and prevent the feelings of anxiety or depression from getting worse. Taking care of your mental health and learning strategies to help you to reduce stress and get enough sleep will improve the quality of your life in the long-term.
Five tips for newly diagnosed cancer patients
If you or a loved one have recently been diagnosed with cancer, remember:
- talk to your doctor, nurse or healthcare team about prehabilitation before you start cancer treatment
- ask your healthcare team for advice and let them know any concerns you have about your diet, physical fitness or mental health
- if prehabilitation is right for you, ask for referrals to relevant health professionals for support
- explore options for increasing your physical activity and complement it with a nutritious diet (always speak to a health professional before starting any new exercise or nutrition program)
- implement strategies for a good night’s sleep.
And don’t forget to check your Extras cover for benefits including exercise physiology, physiotherapy, psychology and more.
Valion Health supports eligible Teachers Health members through the Cancer Support Program.