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Physical therapy helps cancer patients regain control of their lives

Mar 29, 2017


When Donna Shell came to VCU Massey Cancer Center, she couldn’t walk into her physical therapy appointments without assistance due to several broken vertebrae. Shell was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2014 after discovering a lump in her breast. While her doctor initially deemed her lumpectomy a success, she discovered she had bone metastases after having an MRI for severe back pain. She was referred to Doug Arthur, M.D., chair of Radiation Oncology at Massey, for radiation therapy.

“I’m alive thanks to the support I get from everyone at Massey. I can’t imagine anyone going through this without the resources available here,” said Shell tearfully as she pedaled on the stationary bicycle in the rehab suite. As a patient in Massey’s Supportive Care Clinic, Shell has access to psychologists, palliative care experts, nutritionists, social workers, and others in addition to rehabilitation experts like physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech pathologists. Though still in treatment, she now walks into her physical therapy sessions without assistance from people or devices, and she has been able to visit her sons in Detroit and Houston as well as go on a cruise along the East Coast to northern Canada.

“Many people assume that physical therapy starts after cancer treatment, but it should actually start before it begins,” said Sue Stella, P.T., a physical therapist at Massey who has worked with Shell to recover her mobility. “We focus on maintaining and restoring the highest possible level of function, and also guiding patients toward long-term health goals in order to improve their lives and prevent cancer recurrence.”

Studies have disproven several common myths about the fragility of patients with cancer. In fact, research is showing that vigorous exercise, including weight training, can help improve the outcomes of patients who are physically capable. Exercise stimulates the immune system to fight cancer, and it also helps relieve stress and releases endorphins that aide in combatting depression. Treatments like surgery and radiation therapy can cause scar tissue, and stretching helps maintain and recover flexibility and mobility.

“Many people avoid physical exercise and activity after a cancer diagnosis for fear that they’ll hurt themselves or impact their treatment. That’s not true in most circumstances,” said Stella. “As long as your doctor approves, patients should continue to exercise within their capabilities throughout their cancer care, recovery and survivorship.”

On the treadmill about 20 feet away from Shell, Josh Rubinstein works through a routine that includes cardio, weights and exercises designed to strengthen the core of his body. Five years ago, Rubinstein underwent a bone marrow transplant for acute leukemia. A degenerative lung condition present prior to transplantation necessitates the use of oxygen, but he is now back to doing the activities that he loves like playing golf and keeping up with his two active daughters. In fact, he recently returned from Jackson Hole, WY, where he went skiing for the first time in 20 years.

“I’ve been in physical therapy for about four years now, and we are constantly changing my routine to make sure I continue to progress,” said Rubinstein. “I have my limits, but I can do a lot more than I used to—when I first started I couldn’t even walk up stairs.”

While Shell and Rubinstein work to recover their strength, multiple myeloma patient Joseph McKey works to increase his prior to undergoing an autologous stem cell transplant.

“Rehab has made an incredible difference,” said McKey, a father of four who was diagnosed last July around the same time as his wife’s birthday. “Sue has taught me how to control my core muscles so that I don’t injure myself as easily. Before, something as simple as a sneeze could lead to tremendous back pain if I wasn’t prepared for it.”

When McKey was diagnosed, a CT scan found lesions throughout his body and two fractured vertebrae in his back. He was in so much pain that he couldn’t walk. He underwent radiation therapy for his back and is now on his eighth cycle of chemotherapy prior to his transplant. His lesions are stable but have been slow to heal.

“As a former marine, it was difficult having to rely so much on others,” said McKey. “Physical therapy has allowed me to regain a lot independence. Maintaining and improving my strength and flexibility also gives me confidence as I prepare for transplant.”

“Today, more and more people are surviving cancer thanks to advancements in treatment. Unfortunately, many of these treatments have side effects that impact quality of life,” said Stella. “In the Supportive Care Clinic, we take an integrative approach to address our patients’ physical, emotional and spiritual needs. We work with them to establish and meet their goals—it is a very rewarding experience.”

Visit the cancer rehabilitation section of Massey's website to learn more about its rehabilitation program or call (804) 828-5116. 

Written by: John Wallace

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