Health Desk
5:36 am
Mon July 1, 2013

Rehab Program Helps Cancer Survivors Fight

Occupational therapist Wendy Schmitz-Johnson and patient Verna Stallone
Occupational therapist Wendy Schmitz-Johnson and patient Verna Stallone
Credit WUIS/Peter Gray

Some cancer survivors struggle with pain, fatigue and other crippling symptoms following aggressive treatments such as radiation.

A nationwide program now offered in Springfield connects patients with occupational therapists who can help speed the healing process.

Peter Gray reports from the WUIS Health Desk. 

[LINKS to more information about oncology rehab can be found below]

63-year-old Verna Stallone of Springfield was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago.

She recovered at home following a double mastectomy, where she started using this mantra to remain positive and keep on moving:

STALLONE: “Seize the day, fight hard and stay strong.”

Now she has to fight even harder.  Last fall, her doctors delivered bad news:

STALLONE: “The diagnosis for the recurrence.” 

A second bout with cancer.  Stallone underwent chemotherapy and radiation.  The aggressive treatment left her exhausted – it was difficult to perform even basic daily tasks.  So she started looking for help:

STALLONE: “...and I ran across a little brochure at my radiation oncologist's office about the STAR program...”

STAR stands for Survivorship Training and Rehabilitation.  It's a nationwide program started in 2009 by Boston doctor, Harvard Professor - and fellow breast cancer survivor - Julie Silver.

SILVER: “People feel much better at the beginning of treatment than they do at the end of treatment.  And many patients never actually get off treatment – they live with cancer as a chronic condition.   So the need for rehabilitation is profound and the delivery of these services is often very much lacking.”

Silver has been working to increase survivors’ access to personalized rehab, which studies have shown can speed recovery from debilitating side effects of cancer treatment.   She says survivors of strokes aren't told to simply heal on their own and “accept a new normal” - and she says those who’ve faced cancer shouldn’t have to either:

SILVER: “That's not okay.  We can't just send these people back home and tell them to figure it out on their own.  That's not okay.  We have much better care that we can offer.”  

Verna Stallone gets tips on how to safely move her swollen arm as part of her personalized rehab program
Verna Stallone gets tips on how to safely move her swollen arm as part of her personalized rehab program
Credit WUIS/Peter Gray

At Memorial Medical Center’s rehab center in Springfield, Verna Stallone’s workout includes stretching brightly-colored rubber bands with her left arm.  It’s tightly wrapped in thick white bandages.

Her cancer treatments damaged a lymph node under that arm, triggering full-body swelling known as lymphedema.  Her STAR certified therapist, Wendy Schmitz-Johnson, says chemo and radiation can damage good tissues along with the cancer cells: 

SCHMITZ-JOHNSON: “Those lymph nodes used to have a job in life, and that was to help with the fluid management in a quadrant - or an area - of the body.  Well with the loss of those lymph nodes, there’s a mechanical insufficiency.”

Educating a cancer survivor about what’s happening with their body is part of the program.  Wendy Schmitz-Johnson says the STAR certification has helped her be more effective with patients referred by oncologists.  Her role as a therapist, she says, is to “listen” to what patients’ bodies are “saying" - and much of the time they’re simply saying, “Go Slowly.”

SCHMITZ-JOHNSON: “Sometimes you can only do a little bit at a time, but you’re still moving in a direction.  Looking at symptom management, tolerances, that kind of stuff.  Individualizing it for the person is huge.”  

Verna Stallone’s one-one-one program includes diet restrictions, careful exercise and a regular process of draining fluid from her swollen left arm back into the rest of her body.  She’s been following the program to the letter and this week she’s reached a milestone:

STALLONE: “I reached my pre-treatment body weight.  So I was really pleased with that.”

In addition to the Survivorship Training and Rehab program’s main goals – reducing pain, fighting fatigue and other bothersome symptoms – Stallone has also seen it lift her spirits during a very tough time:

STALLONE:  “It’s nice to know that I have people on my team.  Because I was kind of at a loss when my radiation and chemo treatments were over.  Just how do I deal with all of this?  So it’s really been a blessing to have them to help me through that.  It’s given me a lot more confidence and helped me understand what I can do that will address the problems.”

Stallone knows her cancer fight may not be over.  There’s a chance it will recur.  But she says getting back on her feet has made a big difference in her outlook on life:

STALLONE: "Being physically active again and feeling like I’m going to have some good years ahead of me.” 

As Stallone looks ahead, she knows that in her therapist she’s found an ally and a friend.

SCHMITZ-JOHNSON: “I know that I feel like ‘enter as strangers, leave as friends’.”

STALLONE: “Yeah, I absolutely feel that too.”

SCHMITZ-JOHNSON: “Yep.  I love what I do and it’s extremely rewarding to feel like you can empower somebody to their own wellness, health, family… and life… yeah.  It’s all good.”

For both of them, it’s healing with a helping hand. 

-Peter Gray

LINKS to more information about oncology rehab and other support services: