There are two people that I remember vividly who inspired me to develop an Exercise Program just for cancer patients. Meeting the two amazing people and hearing their stories inspired me to take action. They lit that spark that empowered me to fight through my personal battles and carry on to help them with theirs.
When I sit back and think of my journey I have to think of theirs. The two that made me analyze, decipher, and try to solve. I love a problem and I love to figure out a solution.
Well both Peter and Pecita had problems that needed solutions. And both had cancer.
My First Cancer Patient
Peter was my first cancer patient. Peter found me – he was looking for an exercise therapist that could work with him and help him get stronger and move better. He had partial paralysis after his last surgery to remove a brain tumour and had already been through previous surgeries as well as numerous rounds of chemo.
Peter and I took an amazing journey together, me learning just as much from him as he did from me. I was a fairly new grad, and Peter an old soul. We complimented each other – my energy and conviction, his experience and wisdom – what a match.
That’s when my research began, what was cancer, how did it affect the body, what were the treatment options, why did Peter feel this way? From a scientific standpoint it was fascinating to me. From a therapist’s standpoint, I was in awe of my patient – what he had been through, how he had persevered – and my desire to help, in the best ways I could, became cemented in me and has molded me into the therapist I am today.
As my career grew, I played to my strength of digging deep and finding solutions. I developed a strong skill set in functional evaluations and my business grew allowing me to meet many people as I evaluated their abilities to perform functional tasks. This allowed me to sit with each client, one-on-one, and listen to their story as we talked and uncovered their history.
Functional Assessment and Cancer
Pecita was referred to me for a functional evaluation through her insurance company. We met at her house and sat down at her kitchen table. I had already reviewed her medical records but always feel it’s important to get a personal history from my patients – so Pecita and I sat and chatted.
Pecita was diagnosed with breast cancer – went through surgery, and chemo – and was sitting with me one year after treatment was completed. She was tired, had gained weight, had pain when moving her arm, and couldn’t reach overhead. I asked her about treatment for these symptoms and Pecita simply said “none”. She tried to explain to me that she had breast cancer and that’s why she feels like this. The past two years had all been about cancer – not about her. She had beaten cancer – there were clear borders, no sign of cancer in her body, and that’s what the treatment was all about. She didn’t even want to complain about how tired she was, that she had arm pain, that it was so hard to climb the stairs. And that was my lightbulb moment. I saw the gap.
The gap between treating cancer and treating the patient. The need for rehab that understands the patient’s battle with cancer as well as their side effects from treatment. Just like my work with Peter. I was on a mission. I love research, I love digging in and discovering. And that’s where I started. I wanted to find rehab programs so cancer patients could be referred for treatment. This wasn’t an easy task in 2005.
So, I researched and studied. And it appeared that there was an overwhelming fear surrounding the referral of cancer patients for exercise – and this was from all levels. First of all, it was pretty clear to me why patients would be afraid of exercise. I can hear the words “What???? You expect me to get on that treadmill, walk around the block, stretch and bend while I’m in the fight for my life???” But doctors were afraid too – what would happen if they sent their patients out into the world of exercise? This was a big unknown. Therapists had a healthy dose of fear when it came to treating cancer patients. What was the proper program for a cancer patient? What could they do and what shouldn’t they do?
But some clinics were figuring out what to do and were moving forward and seeing amazing, positive results. The first one I talked to was in Santa Barbara. As a breast cancer patient, Julie Main, started exercising during her cancer treatments. When doctors asked her the secret to why the treatments seemed to have such minimal effect on her she explained very simply, exercise. Julie was a pioneer in the use of exercise as rehabilitation to help fight the side effects of cancer treatment. The Santa Barbara club shared their insights, program ideas, and pushed me forward in discovering new concepts. Julie’s input was instrumental in creating a cancer exercise program here in Toronto.
As I continued to diligently research (something I love to do), I discovered The Rocky Mountain Cancer Research Institute (RMCRI) and the amazing work being completed by Carole Schneider. Her co-authored book, Exercise and Cancer Recovery was a fundamental pillar in the development of WELLFIT. As I continued on my learning quest, I visited Roanne Segal’s cancer exercise centre at the Ottawa Hospital. I toured the rehab facility with one of the Kinesiologists and we compared our programming and discussed how to bring exercise to the forefront as a treatment for cancer patients.
Roanne Segal has continued to advance the area of cancer rehabilitation with her research
My learning in this area has never stopped. There are always new and exciting developments on the horizon. But one thing I know for sure. Exercise is an amazing therapy for cancer patients. There’s a lot to know and always more to learn – but this unique specialty is my passion.
I look forward to being able to share my passion.