By Steve Blanchard - September 12, 2020
Within six months of their cancer diagnosis, a person’s chances of falling and suffering an injury increase. That’s according to Sandi Vonnes, a geriatric oncology practitioner at Moffitt Cancer Center. She says that is why it’s so important to remind cancer patients and their caregivers to “fall proof” their homes and lives as much as possible.
“In the general non-oncology older adult population, falls are in the top 10 causes of accidental death,” Vonnes said. “While older cancer patients are at risk as well, many forget that cancer patients of any age are more likely to fall and injure themselves for a number of reasons.”
Vonnes points to the treatments for cancer that can cause weakness and other maladies that increase the risk of falling. Chemotherapy, for example, can negatively impact the immune system and make a person more susceptible to an infection.
“And falls may indicate a sign of infection,” Vonnes said. “Cancer treatment can also disrupt your electrolyte balance. If you have low sodium, for instance, that can cause gait instability, poor balance and neurologic problems.”
Too often, patients suffer falls that can be easily preventable. The biggest culprit of falls according to Vonnes? Flip flops.
"Floridians love their flip flops but those and sandals are a leading cause of falls because many patients have decreased sensitivity in their feet."- Geriatric Oncology Practitioner
“Pay attention to your footwear,” Vonnes said. “Floridians love their flip flops but those and sandals are a leading cause of falls because many patients have decreased sensitivity in their feet. Make sure you wear shoes that have a back so that your foot is less likely to get stuck and cause you to fall.”
Patients should also avoid fuzzy slippers, shoes with slick soles and high heels.
Another leading cause of catastrophic falls is from orthostatic hypertension or a quick drop in blood pressure.
“This typically happens when you stand up too quickly,” Vonnes said. “This is something that can happen when you’re dehydrated or if you have low blood counts. I tell patients all the time to firmly plant their feet on the ground and count to 30 or so before standing up.”
This is an especially good tip for anyone who uses the restroom in the middle of the night, Vonnes said. She added that 50 to 80% of falls are bathroom related.
“These falls occur in the shower, in the bathtub or on the way to and from the bathroom,” Vonnes said. “Bathrooms are usually tiled and that hard surface can cause severe damage in a fall. It’s important to be extremely careful there.”
Using common sense is the best way to stay protected. Vonnes suggests that patients and caregivers take a close look at their home and remove any hazards like cords, wires, papers, rugs and clutter that could impede a person’s ability to navigate the home. Vonnes also suggests that small pets be considered.
“If the pet gets underfoot, you can go down quickly,” Vonnes said. “But it’s also important to keep yourself safe when in a store or even here at the cancer center.”
Vonnes suggests a walker with a seat for those who are experiencing mobility issues and said that staying hydrated and having snacks to regulate blood sugar are also important, especially when there is a big day planned.
She adds asking for assistance is essential to staying safe and should not be thought of as a loss of independence.
“Ask your provider for a walker you can sit on or utilize the transportation services and wheelchairs provided at Moffitt and other healthcare facilities,” Vonnes said. “Using that assistance will prevent you from injuring yourself and severely impacting your treatment. Injuring yourself and focusing on that injury while delaying your cancer treatment can really lead to a loss of independence, so it’s best to stay alert and stay prepared.”