Balancing the needs of cancer patients

Balance can be a problem for cancer patients

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Professor explains how balance disorders can present in cancer patients.


IMAGINE a robot that's motherboard is still in working order, yet it no longer has enough working sensors to inform its spatial position. It would likely begin falling over and bumping into things, damaging even more sensors as it does.

Professor John Corbett says this can be the experience of many cancer patients.

"For a variety of reasons (such as axonal peripheral neuropathy or reaction to chemotherapy drugs), the peripheral nervous system can begin slowing production and thus see a steady decline in the amplitude of its signals," he said.

"What this primarily means for cancer patients is that maintaining good balance, which is integral in day-to-day life, becomes increasingly difficult.

"The body's ability to remain stable while sitting, standing or moving (which helps to prevent falls and further injury which cancer patients are especially vulnerable to) is compromised."

Professor Corbett said balance disorders may present in cancer patients in a number of ways, including an irregular or erratic step, unsteady gait, the need for support when walking, clumsiness, falls, lethargy, dizziness (especially while standing) and vertigo.

"While many of these symptoms may appear as post-treatment side-effects (such as with chemotherapy), they may also present pre-treatment, for example a tumour applying excess pressure to a peripheral nerve," he said.

"In such instances, it is imperative for the general practitioner to consider the role of the peripheral nervous system in their diagnosis and seek appropriate testing.

"Such symptoms are, perhaps surprisingly, one of the biggest indicators of many forms of cancer (particularly in cancers of the head, neck and spine), which may actually assist in the cancer diagnosis itself being made.

"There are varied reasons a patient may exhibit poor balance; and it's clearly important to also rule out common neuropathies before a cancer diagnosis can be confirmed. In either instance, it is imperative that patients are properly tested."

Professor Corbett said nerve testing by an experienced neurologist/neurophysiologist to pinpoint any related damage can assist oncologists to locate and monitor the progress of any deterioration to the nerves, which can cause major complications for cancer patients if not adequately addressed.

Corbett Neurophysiology Services provides bulk-billed nerve conduction studies in Brisbane, Ipswich and the Gold Coast.