Cancer Care and Oncology

Note: In 2011, AOTA identified cancer and oncology care as an emerging niche in occupational therapy. It has since become more mainstream, so newer content appears elsewhere on this site. This page has been retained for historical information. Learn more about the 2011 Emerging Niche series here.

Cancer patientWhy emerging? The growing number of cancer survivors—almost 1 in every 20 adults and nearly 1 in 5 of all people over age 65 in the U.S. have survived cancer1—will need access to services such as lymphedema therapy, hospice, and palliative care. Some report that physicians are not addressing lymphedema, a debilitating after effect of cancer, but occupational therapists are trained and able to address this issue. Studies show that patients with advanced cancer who receive early palliative care report better quality of life and live a few months longer than patients receiving only standard care.2 The need for lymphedema management and palliative care, and the growing number of survivors, mean there will be more opportunities for occupational therapy practitioners.

Get Involved: Jennifer Hughes, OTR, MOT, always had an affinity toward working in oncology, but before graduate school she had never realized the role of occupational therapy with cancer care. After completing both of her Level II fieldwork experiences on the oncology floors of a hospital, and since she is from Houston, Texas, Hughes decided she wanted to work at the number one oncology hospital, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and has been part of its oncology rehab staff for nearly 5 years.

Hughes has noticed a huge expansion in oncology for occupational therapy, especially because the side effects of cancer treatments are increasing due to treatments getting more aggressive, older clients being treated for cancer, and clients surviving longer. "It's definitely difficult to work with a client who has a grim prognosis," says Hughes. "But I think the rewards are greater than the sadness, and our goal as OTs is to improve the quality of life, not save the client's life." She says that occupational therapy practitioners can create a paradigm shift in clients from simply existing to living life to its fullest each day. "They go from completely healthy most of the time, to completely debilitated overnight," says Hughes. "We might be the only health care providers who are really giving them back their control over their environment and their daily function. We offer them control in a very uncontrollable situation."

Hughes recommends that practitioners know the evidence, keep up with the most current research, and be able to be creative and pull from many areas and models. Practitioners should also be aware of psychosocial needs, impaired cognition, and fatigue in clients with cancer and be ready to address those areas first. "Those things can really mask their other areas of performance," says Hughes. "I feel like almost every client struggles with psychosocial issues, chemobrain, and fatigue, and we're the best health care providers to address those areas."



  1. Belluck, P. (2011, March 10). Number of cancer survivors rise by 20% in 6 years. Retrieved May 12, 2011, from 
  2. Hobson, K. (2010, August 18). Study: Advanced cancer patients receiving early palliative care live longer. Retrieved May 12, 2011, from