Has your cancer experience left you with balance issues? Do you sometimes feel dizzy, off-kilter, or unsure of your footing?

If so, you’re certainly not alone. Cancer and its treatment can negatively affect balance in a number of ways and it’s quite common for cancer patients and survivors to experience some form of cancer-related balance problems. The good news is that exercise can counteract these negative affects and greatly improve your ability to balance.

Good balance is vital to day-to-day life. Defined as the body’s ability to remain stable while standing, sitting, or moving about, balance is important in preventing injuries from falls or missteps. Balance is the foundation for so many of life’s activities.

The Center recently hosted a presentation by Jason Adour and Sarah Burnham, doctors of physical therapy at Maine Strong Balance Center, in Scarborough. In their talk, Jason and Sarah described how our bodies maintain balance, the ways in which cancer and cancer treatment can impede our ability to balance, and how balance-specific exercises can help.


How Our Bodies Maintain Balance (A very brief, simplified explanation)

The human body has three main systems that work together to help keep us balanced as we go about our daily lives.

Our somatosensory system is the means by which our nerves and brain receive, process, and deliver messages from our skin, muscles, and joints. This is one way we know where we are in our environment. Is the ground rocky, sandy, shifting under our feet? Proprioception is the fancy word for the feedback mechanism that allows us to adjust to changes.

Through our visual system, we receive input from our eyes about where we are located compared to our surroundings, our spatial orientation.

And, finally, our vestibular system, the movement of fluid in our inner ear, sends information directly to our brain in order to keep us stable.


How Cancer Can Cause Balance Problems

Peripheral neuropathy is a common, and often long-lasting, side effect of cancer treatment. Nerve damage to the hands and feet can result in numbness, pain, tingling, and weak muscles. This reduction in sensation can impair the feedback loop of your somatosensory system, reducing how well you can react to feedback about your environment. This could mean that when you’re out walking, you may not feel a tree root or other object underfoot, causing you to roll your ankle or even fall before you have time to respond.

Cancer treatment can affect your vestibular system, causing you to lose some of the hair cells in your inner ear. The resulting decrease in your ability to balance can be temporary or long term.

Muscle weakness, cancer-related fatigue, and chemo-brain are other common cancer-related side effects that can impede good balance for cancer patients and survivors alike.


Here’s the Good News

Balance training exercises, like those offered at Maine Strong Balance Center, can:

  • counter some of the effects of cancer treatment
  • help you regain function and mobility for activities of daily living
  • help prevent future injuries, such as falls, by improving your ability to control and maintain your body’s position whether you are in motion or stationary

And that all translates into better quality of life for cancer patients and survivors.


Even Better News

During the month of May, 2018, Sarah Burnham, Doctor of Physical Therapy at Maine Strong Balance Center, is running a four-week balance workshop at the Cancer Community Center. This workshop is open to both cancer patients and survivors.

If you participate in this four-week workshop, you’ll learn about basic anatomy and the three major body systems that allow you to balance. You’ll practice movements targeted at improving balance, and get handouts to practice the exercises at home. And, like everything else at the Center, this workshop is offered at no cost to you.