Oncologic Physical Therapy Gains Momentum at UCSF Health

After a heart attack, patients will typically undergo cardiac rehab, often starting in the hospital and continuing post-discharge. However, this standard of care is not available for most patients with cancer. Assistant Clinical Professor Jordan LaBrec, PT, DPT, is spearheading efforts to change that at UCSF.

The benefits of physical activity for patients with cancer are significant, including reduced risk of recurrence and improved cardiovascular health. While there is a promising body of research on the impact of physical activity on cancer prevention and management, access to exercise resources and education during treatment can be challenging for patients to find.

"My aim is to create comprehensive care pathways for patients, starting from diagnosis, through treatment, and into recovery," LaBrec explains. LaBrec is partnering with a variety of departments and units – including surgical oncology, neurologic oncology, geriatric oncology and urologic oncology– to develop customized services aimed at enhancing autonomy and overall health for patients with cancer.

In his role providing interactive and experiential physical activity programming in the Survivorship Wellness Group Program (SWGP), LaBrec emphasizes the importance of finding the right intensity zone that allows people to participate in physical activity, but not overexert themselves. The ultimate goal is to help patients establish a new baseline of health and activity post-treatment.

"It's about taking manageable steps to rebuild routines and regain agency over one's health," LaBrec emphasizes. Whether patients were marathon runners before or simply seeking to incorporate more movement into their lives, the focus is on progress and reclaiming a sense of vitality. Instead of framing it as "exercise," he prefers the term "physical activity," recognizing that different activities bring joy to different people, whether it's dancing, hiking, or yoga.

Jamie Cohen, PsyD, the SWGP Attending Clinical Psychologist and Primary Group Facilitator, said the group is hungry to learn more about how physical activity and exercise can support their physical and mental wellbeing. “Dr. LaBrec brings wisdom, warmth, and expertise presenting this topic to our group,” she said.

SWGP offers a holistic service for cancer survivors post-treatment, with questionnaire data indicating improved quality of life, reduced mental health symptoms, and enhanced knowledge across various wellness domains.

Collaborating with Hidelisa Manibusan, PT, DPT, and Kathy Bonacini, PT, DPT, and Jill Gleason PT, DPT within the oncology small group, there's now space in the Precision Cancer Medicine Building to hold group classes and bill to insurance. In the past many of the cancer exercise programs were grant funded or cash pay, but billing to insurance provides a sustainable financial model for the future.

Empowering patients to take control of their health is a driving force for LaBrec. "I believe in empowering individuals to shape their treatments and lifestyles, finding joy and fulfillment in their journey to wellness."