“We really believe that the physiatrist [a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation] should be part of the cancer treatment team,” Whitehair said.
Insurance companies will usually pay for some services if they are ordered by a physician, although restrictions on reimbursement for therapies may apply, Whitehair and others said. Most outpatient programs offer intensive six- to eight-week therapy regimens, with patients coming in two or three times a week, but therapy can continue for a year or more if needed. At National Rehabilitation Hospital, a six-week course of physical therapy with three doctor visits costs nearly $3,000.
Vonda Jones, 41, who lives in Prince George’s County, says she is grateful that her oncologist referred her to Whitehair after she underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment for breast cancer in 2009.
First, the rehabilitation specialists tackled the fatigue that would overcome Jones after a simple trip to the grocery store or a morning shower, helping her revise her schedule and prescribing low-impact exercises. Then they addressed range-of-motion problems that had developed during her treatment. Therapists gave her a weighted broom handle and had her llift it repeatedly, extending her arms, for example. Also, they had her stand in a corner and walk her fingers up the wall as far as they could go, stretching weakened muscles.
After getting advice about proper nutrition and additional therapies for balance issues and nerve damage over the course of six weeks, Jones realized “I didn’t feel so limited by side effects any longer.”
That was Jones’s goal. “I was so determined to not have this cancer be a major life change for me,” she said. “I’m a very active person at work, at church and with my friends, and I wanted to have as much of a sense of normalcy as possible. And that’s what I’ve got.”
Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.