Dr. Nancy Hutchison knows that there's life after cancer. But many survivors continue to struggle with the side effects of treatment after it's over: swelling, limited motion, severe weakness and fatigue.
"There are about 12 million cancer survivors in the United States, and cancer treatment leaves many of them with limited abilities or diminished quality of life," said Hutchison, medical director for cancer rehabilitation at the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis.
Now, Sister Kenny is trying to change that with a new program in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. In April, it launched the Survivorship Training and Rehabilitation (STAR) program, which is specially tailored to the needs of cancer patients.
The therapists in this program are trained, for example, to help patients with eating and swallowing problems that can be associated with head and neck cancer. They also work with breast cancer patients who may have difficulty moving their arms because of swelling after treatment. Some of the other common areas involve balance, fitness and cognitive issues. Hutchison said the STAR program was created by a cancer survivor at Harvard University and has been training therapists around the country. The Sister Kenny program is now the largest one in the nation, she said, with some 80 trained staffers. Often cancer patients and even their doctors don't know where to turn for this kind of help, Hutchison said. For almost a decade, cancer experts have said that rehabilitation should be part of the recovery process. But until now, relatively few health organizations have designed programs just for them.
Hutchison said rehab can help cancer survivors with the emotional and physical struggles that follow their treatment.
"It must feel like a black hole," she said. "But now more people can realize our therapists are here to pick them up."
Amanda Bankston is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.