Tears filled her eyes and spilled onto her cheeks as she smiled and hugged me. This had been a big moment and we both knew it. Just a moment before, I had snapped a picture of my patient pressing a 15lb barbell overhead with two 3lb plates on either end. In total, she had just pressed 21lb – a new personal record for her and something she had once thought impossible. But this was something much more than that. This was more than pressing a barbell overhead. This was a woman who was taking her life back and beginning to redefine her self perception.
Needless to say, like many cancer patients, this woman had been through a rough couple of years. Cancer had challenged her very being – in her fight to survive, it had stolen her energy, changed her body and shaken her confidence. Fortunately, she was winning. Surgery and chemotherapy had been successful and she was now in remission. From the oncologist’s standpoint, she was good to go – but fatigue and weakness left her unable to return to work and tackle life’s challenges like she used to. Additionally, the chemotherapy drugs had caused peripheral neuropathy, leaving her with pain, tingling and hypersensitivity in her feet.
Her experience is not uncommon amongst cancer patients. As it should be, the focus initially is on beating cancer – on surviving. However, in the aftermath, patients are often left in this frustrating and disheartening zone where they are no longer considered active cancer patients but they are not able to resume their normal work and leisure activities due to the effects of both the cancer itself and the medications and interventions that were used to save their lives. Fatigue, weakness, deconditioning, “chemo-fog” or “chemo-brain” may all be present to some extent and, in some individuals, the fatigue can be staggering. Additionally, removal of lymph nodes can lead to lymphedema which involves swelling of the limb(s) in which the lymph nodes were dissected or removed. Cording, radiation fibrosis and scar tissue from surgeries can also be present – limiting mobility of the soft tissue and joints in the area.
All of these issues can take away from their ability to live life to the fullest. Thankfully, help exists. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to undergo specific training in cancer rehabilitation. In my studies and my clinical experience, I have learned how incredibly successful physiotherapy and exercise therapy can be for these patients. Research shows that exercise not only improves fatigue, strength, function, and quality of life, but also improves survivorship – meaning that not only will rehabilitation help improve cancer patients’ ability to take their lives back, but it also has the potential to add years to their lives! Additionally, there are hands-on techniques that can improve cording and help restore joint mobility in these patients. We work with them to regain their strength and endurance. In doing so, we also bear witness to an incredible period of transformation, both inside and out. These types of experiences are what make me feel so blessed to be a physiotherapist. I honestly can’t imagine anything better.
I took the picture of my amazing patient because she needed to see it. She was getting stronger, moving better and her physical capacity was significantly improved, but in her mind, she was still weak, beaten down by her fight with the horrific disease we call cancer. She needed to see how strong and capable she was becoming. She has not finished her journey but she is well on her way to taking her life back – both inside and out.
If you or a loved one could benefit from cancer rehabilitation, there are places that can help. Some options are the Cross Cancer Institute, Cancer Rehab Clinic at the University of Alberta, and Wellspring Edmonton. Here in Leduc, RX Physiotherapy, also offers cancer rehabilitation.
Teresa Waser is a physiotherapist and owner of RX Physiotherapy. She has a Master of Science in Physical Therapy from the University of Alberta, in addition to several years of continuing education and experience treating patients of all ages. Outside of the clinic, she coaches running and CrossFit and is passionate about helping others live life to the fullest. You can find more about Teresa and how she can help you at rxphysiotherapy.com