It Starts with YOU: How to Incorporate Cancer Prevention into your Practice

A few weeks ago, I saw an amazing post by Helen Beeley, a physio & cancer survivor, in which she shared how cancer prevention is misunderstood, largely due to differences between the dictionary definition of “prevention” & the public health definition of “prevention.”

So let’s revisit the World Health Organization definition of prevention:

“…approaches & activities aimed at reducing the likelihood that a disease or disorder will affect an individual, interrupting or slowing the progress of the disorder of reducing disability.”

Another definition by the National Cancer Institute states:

“In medicine, action taken to decrease the chance of getting a disease or condition. For example, cancer prevention includes avoiding risk factors (such as smoking, obesity, lack of exercise, and radiation exposure) and increasing protective factors (such as getting regular physical activity, staying at a healthy weight, and having a healthy diet).”

In short, prevention in medicine doesn’t truly seek to avoid a condition altogether.  That would be ideal, but it’s not realistic.  

Don’t get me wrong: there are definitely unhealthy behaviors to avoid, & there are healthy behaviors we can implement to reduce risk of cancer, but cancer may not be entirely avoidable.  But the way in which we learn about cancer in school tends to place blame (intentionally or unintentionally) on the patient.  We typically learn that cancer is a disease of the old, with increasing risk due to things like diet, exercise, smoking, etc.  But that only captures a portion of why cancer happens.

Consider this equation:

Cancer = genetics + risk factors + environmental exposures + stress + luck

Sometimes cancer just happens.  And it sucks.

But that does NOT mean that you cannot work with & encourage your patients to participate in healthy behaviors to try & reduce their risk.  In fact, you have an obligation & an incredible opportunity to do this!  

That said, here are some specific cancer prevention topics & ideas that are definitely within our wheelhouse & scope of practice:

Summer-Specific Cancer Prevention Strategies

During the summer months, there are specific cancer prevention behaviors that become particularly relevant, and it is crucial for you to educate you patients about them. One of the primary areas of focus is sun safety. You play a vital role in raising awareness about the risks of excessive sun exposure, including educating your patients about the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation and how it increases the risk of skin cancer. By explaining the science behind it, you can empower your patients to take proactive steps in protecting their skin.

Promoting sunscreen use, protective clothing, and seeking shade during peak sun hours is essential in preventing sun-related skin damage. Rehab professionals can provide valuable recommendations for selecting and using sunscreen effectively, such as choosing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF and applying it generously to all exposed skin. You can also emphasize the benefits of wearing protective clothing, including wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses, to shield the face and eyes from the sun’s harmful rays. Additionally, you should emphasize the importance of seeking shade and avoiding prolonged sun exposure, especially during the peak hours of 10 am to 4 pm when the sun’s rays are the strongest.

Skin examinations are another critical aspect of cancer prevention. Rehab professionals should educate their patients about the connection between sun exposure and skin cancer. You can emphasize the need for regular self-examinations, encouraging patients to be aware of any changes or abnormalities in their skin, such as new moles or spots, changes in size, shape, or color of existing moles, or any skin lesions that do not heal. You can also stress the importance of annual dermatological check-ups, where dermatologists can conduct a thorough examination and provide early detection and intervention if necessary. 

By providing guidance on what signs to look for and when to seek professional medical advice, you are equipping your patients to prioritize their skin health and catch any potential issues early on.

Incorporating Physical Activity and Nutrition

Physical activity and a healthy diet play vital roles in cancer prevention, so it’s crucial to explain the importance of these factors to your patients. Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of various cancers and improve overall health. By engaging in exercise, individuals can maintain a healthy weight, boost their immune system, improve digestion, and enhance overall well-being, which may be very appealing to cancer survivors experiencing side effects of cancer treatments. By highlighting these benefits, you can motivate your patients to incorporate regular exercise into their daily routine.

Rehab professionals have an opportunity to encourage patients to engage in regular physical activity during the summer months. You can suggest various outdoor activities that are enjoyable and promote physical fitness. Swimming, hiking, biking, or participating in outdoor sports are excellent options to consider. These activities not only provide the benefits of exercise but also allow individuals to enjoy the warm weather and beautiful surroundings. By sharing these ideas, you can inspire their patients to stay active during the summer season.

In addition to physical activity, proper nutrition and hydration are crucial components of cancer prevention. Rehab professionals should emphasize the importance of a balanced diet in reducing the risk of cancer and promoting a healthy weight. You can educate patients about the benefits of consuming a plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that help protect the body against cancer. You can provide practical suggestions for incorporating healthy summer foods into your patients’ diets, such as creating refreshing salads with a variety of colorful vegetables or grilling vegetables as a flavorful and nutritious option. Additionally, you should emphasize the importance of staying hydrated during the summer months by drinking plenty of water and consuming hydrating beverages like infused water or herbal teas, while minimizing sugary drinks and alcohol consumption. 

By emphasizing the importance of nutrition and hydration, you can equip your patients to make informed dietary choices that promote overall health and reduce the risk of cancer.

Addressing Lifestyle Factors

Lifestyle factors such as tobacco and alcohol use significantly contribute to cancer risk, making it crucial for rehab professionals to discuss these topics with your patients. Rehab professionals should explain the link between tobacco use and various types of cancer, including lung, throat, mouth, and bladder cancer. You can highlight the harmful chemicals present in tobacco products and how they can damage cells and DNA, leading to the development of cancer. By providing this information, you can raise awareness and motivate your patients to quit smoking or avoid starting altogether.

Excessive alcohol consumption is another lifestyle factor that increases the risk of cancer. Rehab professionals should discuss the harmful effects of alcohol on cancer risk, such as liver, breast, and esophageal cancer. You can explain how alcohol is broken down into toxic chemicals that can damage DNA and disrupt the body’s normal functioning. By educating patients about the specific risks associated with alcohol use, you can help your patients make informed decisions about their alcohol consumption.

Rehab professionals play a vital role in educating and supporting their patients in quitting smoking and reducing alcohol consumption. You can provide resources for effective smoking cessation, such as counseling, nicotine replacement therapies, and support groups. It is essential to emphasize the importance of personalized approaches and tailoring interventions to each patient’s needs.

Stress management and mental well-being are also crucial aspects of cancer prevention. Rehab professionals should explain how chronic stress can impact the body’s immune system and increase the risk of cancer. You can provide practical tips for patients to manage stress during the summer, such as engaging in relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises, practicing mindfulness and meditation, and seeking social support from friends, family, or support groups. By offering these strategies, you equip your patients to prioritize their mental well-being, reduce stress levels, and mitigate the potential risk factors associated with chronic stress and its impact on cancer risk.

Equipping Patients with Tools for Cancer Prevention

Rehab professionals play a crucial role as advocates for cancer prevention. You must be knowledgeable about cancer prevention guidelines and research to effectively educate and guide their patients. By staying up to date with the latest information, you can provide evidence-based recommendations and address any misconceptions or myths surrounding cancer prevention. You can emphasize the importance of being reliable and trusted sources of information for your patients, helping them make informed decisions about their health.

Effective patient education is key in encouraging cancer prevention behaviors. Rehab professionals can utilize various strategies to convey information clearly and engage your patients. Using clear and relatable language helps patients understand complex concepts easily. Visuals, such as infographics or diagrams, can enhance comprehension and aid in information retention. Interactive materials, such as interactive presentations or quizzes, make the learning process more engaging and enjoyable. By utilizing these educational resources and tools, rehab professionals can enhance patient understanding and encourage them to actively participate in their cancer prevention journey.

Establishing a supportive and empathetic relationship with your patients is crucial for motivating them to adopt cancer prevention behaviors. Active listening, empathy, and understanding individual barriers and motivations are essential in building trust and rapport with patients. By taking the time to listen to their concerns, rehab professionals can address any fears or uncertainties, providing tailored guidance and support. You can also acknowledge and empathize with the challenges patients may face in implementing cancer prevention behaviors. By showing genuine care and support, rehab professionals can empower their patients and increase their motivation to make positive changes.

Ongoing communication and follow-up are vital components of supporting patients in their cancer prevention journey. Regular check-ins allow rehab professionals to monitor patients’ progress, offer encouragement, and provide necessary support. Tracking progress helps patients see their achievements and reinforces their commitment to cancer prevention. Rehab professionals can address any challenges or concerns that arise during follow-up appointments, offering guidance and solutions. Technology, such as mobile apps or virtual platforms, can play a significant role in facilitating communication and support. Rehab professionals can leverage these tools to provide ongoing resources, reminders, and virtual consultations, ensuring continuous support for your patients even outside of in-person visits.

The Cancer Rehab Community Conference is happening Saturday, November 11, 2023!

 Most conferences are stuffy & expensive. Plus, they rarely cover any useful oncology info.

You need a conference that:

  • doesn’t break the bank &
  • actually helps you treat your patients with cancer.

On November 11, 2023, we’re hosting a virtual cancer rehab conference, with dynamic speakers that will teach you how to treat your oncology patients better, how to advocate for your patients, & how to actually make a difference in the world of cancer rehabilitation.

Save your seat now at!

But hurry: early bird pricing is only available for a limited time!

Save your seat TODAY!

Until next time, this is Elise with TheOncoPT. And remember: you are exactly the physical therapist that your patients with cancer need. So let’s get to work.

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