As a newer OncoPT, one of my biggest fears was failure.  I was so concerned with doing everything exactly right for every patient, with proving that I was the best PT I could be for them.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on ourselves.  We’re not going to get everything right every time.  It’s just not possible.  This means failure is an inevitable part of OncoPT, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always bad.  In fact, it’s a really important part of OncoPT – you just have to make sure you’re failing correctly.

What we think failure means as newer OncoPTs

To me, failure meant I could catastrophically injure, maim, or even kill them.  Which is frankly laughable now looking back at it.  

Is it possible to harm patients?  Absolutely.  Are there bad PTs out there?  Yes.  

However, the majority of PTs are good people, wanting to do their best for their patients.  So we’re not going to talk about those bad PTs today.

I’m talking about good PTs, you included, who are nervous, newer, or just plain unsure when it comes to treating patients with cancer.

In my interview with Dr. Susan Maltser (Ep. 176), she talked about how at this point, our patients already have cancer.  It’s not like we can cause any more cancer, so cross that off your worry list.  She also discussed how in her entire career, she’s never seen rehab be the cause of a pathological fracture for a patient.  As long as we’re following safety guidelines (again in Ep. 176), we’re good to go.  

But we can fear failing for a lot of reasons in OncoPT.  But failing is actually a good & necessary thing in OncoPT & here’s why:

Benefits of Failure

  1. Failure keeps us humble.  
    1. You are not infallible.
  2. Failure provides an opportunity to learn from our mistakes.
    1. You don’t always get it right.  You won’t always get it right.

My Story(s) of Failure

I’ve failed a lot as an OncoPT.  One of my earliest & funniest failures was when I treated a patient for rotator cuff dysfunction after her mastectomy.  This was one of my solo treatments as a student physical therapist, & I had this whole plan on what we were going to accomplish in that day’s session.  About half way through the session, I thought things were going well, until she asked me if I was going to work on her other arm too.  Y’all: I was treating the completely wrong side of her body.

One of my biggest failures though came when I was a freshly graduated & licensed physical therapist, working at my first big PT job.  I had been working inside the cancer center for about a month, when I started getting pressure to double book my patients.  So I caved & started double booking only the patients who I thought were appropriate.  Now, oncology patients who look appropriate to double book on paper only look appropriate to double book.  More on that failure in a future episode, but the biggest failure was what came on a sunny September afternoon, last patient appointments of the day.  

Patient A comes in, she’s doing great.  We get started on our warm-up & the first few interventions, but still no Patient B.  Patient B was always on time or early, so something was up.  Finally, Patient B trudges into the clinic, & he looked like he had the wind knocked out of him.

Turns out, Patient B just came from his medical oncologist, who told him treatment wasn’t working & he had just a few weeks to live.  He was crushed.  

I spent the rest of the session, running back & forth between my patients: I felt bad that I kept Patient A waiting while I attended to Patient B, but also wanted to give Patient B the time he needed.

About 15 minutes later, Patient B just up & left.  And I didn’t see him again.  Ever.

I completely failed my patient; in the moment he needed me most, I wasn’t there for him.  

“Never half-ass two things, whole ass one thing.” – Ron Swanson, Parks & Recreation

How to Fail Better

Fail forward.

Don’t make the same mistake again.

When you fail (not if), ask yourself: what’s the lesson I’m supposed to learn from this?

Nothing is a waste if you learn from it.

The Oh Hellos, “I Have Made Mistakes”

When you fail, make sure you get back up & try again tomorrow.  Or with your next patient.

Apologize after you fail.  Own up to your failure.


You are going to fail.  Me too.  It’s inevitable.  

But it’s what we do after we fail that matters the most.  Are you going to sit around & mope about it, or are you going to change your approach & try again next time?

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.