A cancer diagnosis often means a focus on medical treatments like surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but there is another equally important way to regain health that is not considered traditional oncology care.
Laura Papaioannou, Physiotherapy Manager, Epworth Rehabilitation and Mental Health, says exercise should be part of everyone’s treatment for cancer and hopes it will become common practice.
“Exercise is just as important as other adjunct therapies. We have been providing it for those with breast cancer for quite some time but have formally extended the program to other cancers in the last two years,” Laura said.
“A key feature of post cancer treatment is fatigue. We help our patients build back to their normal fitness levels with a weekly program which includes exercise to improve strength and endurance along with education provided by the multi-disciplinary team.”
Susan Malone has just completed her third rehabilitation program at Epworth Camberwell and credits it with helping her get through some tough times.
“I was diagnosed in January 2018 with a 7cm brain tumour. It turns out I had a lung tumour that had metastasized. I hadn’t been sick, I had no shortness of breath, I had no idea,” Susan remembers.
“I had been travelling a lot to South East Asia for work and had what I thought was a back spasm. Because I had been doing a lot of flying, the doctor thought best to check for blood clots.
“The good news was no blood clot, but I was sent straight to Epworth.
“My oncology doctor at Epworth - Dr Ayesha Saqib - was very good. As I am a non-smoker and relatively young (61), she thought my type of lung cancer was very likely to quickly metastasize to my brain and I had a seizure in hospital.
“I was in hospital on the Monday evening and operated on the Saturday. It was a very busy week.”
Susan has spent the last three years in and out of hospital but counts herself lucky. Medications and treatments have bought her time and exercise has made a huge difference.
“The first time I went to rehab as an inpatient; I got to meet others who had cancer and hear their stories. Back then my prognosis was not so good – two to six months.
“When I joined the outpatients program, there was a speaker each week and I wanted to learn as much as I could. If I could understand, I would have more control.
“It gave me encouragement – whatever stage I had to face in future, it was not all bad.
“Getting closer to my old level of fitness was invaluable. I had been fit and was going to the gym three times a week. In hospital, I lost all my conditioning completely and was struggling to walk up few steps; I was not in a good way.
“I knew if I was going to have chemotherapy, I would need some physical fitness in order to get through it. When people are chosen for research studies, they look for people generally fit, healthy and strong, which gives you the best chance.”
Laura added: “The mix of exercise, support from psychologists and a group dynamic all combine to make a real difference to mental health, not just physical health.”
In January this year, after a series of six-hour chemotherapy sessions, a scan revealed no brain tumours and a lung tumour reduced to 2mm. But Susan was weak, with a poor mental state, so went back into rehab and is now feeling happier and fitter.
Reflecting back, Susan counts seven doctors and five allied health professionals who helped her along the way at Epworth. At one point she was taking 24 tablets daily to stay alive. Today, she’s on immunotherapy and able to look forward.
‘It’s now time to plan holidays for next year,” she smiled.