Physical Therapy On the Cancer Journey – A Personal Perspective

By Cheryl Guarna, PT, CLT, STAR/C – Owner of Oncology Rehab and Wellness Resources

The emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis is something that most cancer survivors will never forget. To add to that impact, the treatments used to treat the cancer can cause a multitude of complications that can affect a survivor’s life, some of which can affect their return to a “normal” life. These can include unmanageable fatigue, pain, significant weakness, mobility issues as well as mental and emotional exhaustion to name a few. The often life-saving treatments take a toll on the human body – and mind. Many patients express how they feel so much worse after cancer treatment than they did before.   What a different outcome as compared most other illnesses or disease where treatment makes the person feel better, not worse. Then why is it that cancer patients are all too often left without any help to get them back on their feet?

When I decided to leave a stable income and start a physical therapy practice that would specialize in the rehabilitation of cancer patients and survivors, I knew it would be a tough road.   Many of my greatest supporters in life were concerned, but always hopeful. However, throughout this journey, the sense of support from everyone that I know has been overwhelmingly present and strong- and it seems to get stronger by the day. Something compelled me to take the road less travelled- or should I say the road not really travelled much at all.   Maybe it was the fact that I grew up in a family where cancer was/is an all to common disease- and I have seen first hand the effect that cancer can have on peoples lives – or maybe it was the years I spent treating cancer patients as a Physical Therapist and seeing what they can achieve with some help. Whatever it was -or is -will remain with me until I see my vision become a reality. It is my vision and my passion to help cancer rehabilitation become a common element of cancer care. It will be a given, not an exception. It is such a needed but very often overlooked component however, research supports its safety and its efficacy. When cancer rehab begins to enter the mainstream, then we will let patient results prove how important it is. Everyone will begin to see the benefits that I see.

Cancer (“Oncology”) rehab is an emerging new specialty in Physical Therapy (just as orthopedic, neurologic, pediatric and cardiac rehab are specialties now) and acceptance of it as a critical part in cancer recovery is just not where it needs to be-yet. Educating the medical and the cancer community has its challenges. Trying to convey the importance of rehab in the lives of cancer survivors is believe it or not, a seemingly difficult message to get people to accept. It sounds crazy, right? Well, it is true. How people cannot see the devastation of patients’ physical bodies and minds –and the ongoing difficulties that these patients often endure after cancer treatment is, for me, truly hard to imagine. Many cancer patients are never even given the information that help is out there. It is my mission to see that change. Yes, it will take time and continued hard work, but the interactions with my patients and the results that I have seen at my clinic make each challenging day well worth the effort.   From assisting a breast cancer survivor to overcome her post-surgical pain and get back to her family life, to helping a woman hold on to her strength and strong will as she lives with incurable cancer, to helping a man to be able to walk his dog again, to helping a young woman left physically broken down by intensive chemotherapy regain her life and her youthful independence – to discharging patients to a better life – that is what I see. That is why I chose to do what I do. I knew that these results were possible because I have seen what Physical Therapy can do to help people. Am I biased? Maybe. But, after 16 years of being a Physical Therapist and seeing how rehabilitation can change peoples’ lives, I most certainly should be.

While cancer rehab is still in the developing stages of being accepted as an integral part of cancer care, real life patient results are helping many people – patients, their caregivers, their doctors and their nurses- begin to see that this is a fact. The research data continues to support the benefits of rehabilitation in helping people recover from–or live with-cancer. All cancer patients and survivors deserve a fair chance to get back to living the best life that they can. I feel very fortunate to be able to see first hand what cancer rehabilitation can do to help cancer survivors improve their quality of life – and return to life- as strong and as able as they can be. They didn’t choose this “cancer path” but they certainly choose to fight – and I plan to be here to help them fight.

“I feel great- very empowered”, “It feels great to have some sense of control back in my life”, “I am so thankful I found out about this [cancer rehab]”, “I am so happy that I have been able to get back to taking care of my children”, “Coming here makes me feel strong and ready to take on this cancer” are some of the statements that I have heard from my patients. Statements such as these can make any day a great day. Can we help all patients get their “pre-cancer life” back? Unfortunately, that isn’t always possible and sometimes that is hard to accept. But what we can do is help survivors gain their highest functional level possible under their individual circumstances…whatever those circumstances may be. We may not get every patient out there walking their dog or going back to their yoga classes or running a 5K, but if we can help them to be the best that they can be – to be able to get dressed independently, to be able to get around their home safely, to be able to go for a walk in the sunshine without complete exhaustion, to live with less pain or to feel empowered to keep fighting the fight, then that is a success in my book.

We all make choices in our lives that help to determine our path – it is my dream that the choices I have made will help to create a road WELL travelled in helping those with cancer be stronger, healthier, happier and on their own, brighter path to a better life.