Nerve damage caused by chemotherapy is a common problem for cancer patients. One analysis of 31 studies found that almost 70 percent of chemotherapy patients will experience chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) during treatment with about 30 percent still feeling effects six months after treatment. While a wide variety of drugs may cause the problem, the taxane- and platinum-based drugs are frequent offenders.
Usually patients experience numbness and tingling in their hands and feet, which can be quite painful. The damaged nerves are not sending accurate signals to the brain, so balance, walking, and fine-motor skills can be thrown off. There are quite a few different types of medicines for CIPN, so consulting a neurologist can help you find the best ones for you.
Don’t stop with medicine though! A recent study finds that tango dancing helped improve the balance of cancer patients with CIPN, and other people have been helped with tai chi.
At Ohio State University, researchers used a ten-week course to teach 30 people with peripheral neuropathy the Argentine tango, a dance that involves weight shifting and balance. At the end, patients’ balance had improved, and they reported that they enjoyed the dance lessons.
This was a small study, so it remains to be seen whether its results can be replicated. However, if you have CIPN, you might want to consider dance lessons. With a partner to steady you, it should be safe and fun.
Like the tango, tai chi is a form of exercise that requires weight-shifting. I have two left feet, and can’t imagine being able to learn the tango, but I love tai chi. The movements are slow enough for me to follow and within three weeks, I could see a significant improvement in my balance. I have a history of falls because of my peripheral neuropathy, so I found myself more and more fearful about being on uneven ground or in other situations conducive to a fall. Since starting tai chi, I have been able to recover my balance several times when I almost fell, and avoided a tumble.
There is much research on the benefits of tai chi for preventing falls in older people and increasing flexibility for arthritis patients--both of which benefit those with peripheral neuropathy. Some of the research into tai chi focuses directly on how it affects people with neuropathy. According to the Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy, “. . . tai chi can re-awaken the connections between muscles in the body, and between the muscles and the mind. Studies on [tai chi and peripheral Neuropathy] show that the more someone with Peripheral Neuropathy learns to use their whole body for both exercise and simple daily tasks – even walking! – the less pain they experience, and the more comfort they have in their bodies overall.”
It is this kind of research that has led cancer wellness programs like the one at my YMCA to include tai chi as part of the fitness program.
Even if peripheral neuropathy pain is limiting your activity, try to incorporate some regular exercise into your life. Check out programs specifically designed to prevent falls so that you can learn how to be safe even with damaged nerves.
Boltz, K. Tango Dancing Improves Balance and Fall Risk in Cancer Patients With Peripheral Neuropathy. Oncology Nurse Advisor July 15, 2016. Accessed from http://www.oncologynurseadvisor.com/side-effect-management/tango-dancing-improves-chemotherapy-associated-peripheral-neuropathy/article/509730/ August 9, 2016.
Lam, P. Tai Chi for Health Institute. Accessed from http://taichiforhealthinstitute.org August 10, 2016.
Peripheral Neuropathy Caused by Chemotherapy. American Cancer Society. May 10, 2016. Accessed from http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/002908-pdf.pdf August 10, 2016.
Tai Chi for Peripheral Neuropathy. The Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy. Accessed from https://www.foundationforpn.org/living-well/integrative-therapies/tai-chi/ August 10, 2016.
Tzatha, E and L. DeAngelis. Chemotherapy-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy. Oncology March 15, 2016. Accessed from http://www.cancernetwork.com/oncology-journal/chemotherapy-induced-peripheral-neuropathy August 9, 2016.
Phyllis Johnson is an inflammatory breast cancer survivor who serves on the Board of Directors for the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the oldest 501(3)(c) organization focused on research for IBC. She is a list monitor for an online support group at www.ibcsupport.org. She stays current on cancer information through attendance at conferences such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD® Institute. A retired teacher, she has been writing about cancer issues at HealthCentral since 2007.