Physical therapy helps patients recover from cancer treatments

March 19, 2007
When Cheryl Spencer-Beck had a mastectomy as part of her breast cancer treatment, she wasn’t expecting the limitations that would follow. “It wasn’t something I anticipated,” she said. “Someone might have mentioned it before the surgery, but when you’re in the doctor’s office you’re in a fog and you don’t hear anything.” Like many women, Spencer-Beck was focused on beating the cancer, not the challenges that would result from surgery. Physical rehabilitation after a mastectomy or a lumpectomy can be an important, but sometimes overlooked, part of cancer treatment. Many women are surprised by the pain and loss of strength and function in their shoulders and arms. “It’s an underserved area, but one we’re trying to address,” said Leslie Kesler, Director of Rehabilitation Services at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. The medical center recently sent 33 nurses and therapists to an oncology rehabilitation course to give clinical staff throughout the network training on the latest techniques. “We don’t want to drop treating the patient just when we’ve treated the cancer,” said Michelle Zumbro, a therapist at NHRMC’s Oleander Rehabilitation Center. “We want to get patients back to their optimal quality of life.” Spencer-Beck was determined get back to her life as quickly as possible. She started physical therapy a month after her surgery so she could strengthen and more freely move her shoulders and arms. “At first, I couldn’t lift my arm enough to get dressed,” she said. “That was frustrating.” Her initial therapy helped her regain the range of motion she lost. Then, several months later, a new problem developed. “My arm started swelling,” she said. “It felt like someone hitting my funny bone continually.” Spencer-Beck developed lymphedema, a condition in which the lymph system malfunctions and fluid accumulates in the soft tissues. Treatment for breast cancer increases the chances of developing lymphedema because lymph nodes are usually removed from under the arm, slowing the flow of lymph fluid in the area. It can happen right after surgery, or months to even years later. NHRMC has two certified lymphedema therapists, Zumbro and Beth Connell. They have been treating lymphedema patients for almost four years with a system called Comprehensive Decongestive Therapy. It involves manual lymph drainage to stimulate lymph flow, compression therapy, and teaching the patient exercises that can get the fluid moving. Therapists can also help cancer patients overcome other issues that can accompany treatment. “People who get chemotherapy and radiation can get fatigue,” said Zumbro. “People want to rest, but studies show exercise can reduce the fatigue. New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s physical therapists have been specifically trained in how to develop an exercise program which best balances a patient’s cancer fatigue level.” Spencer-Beck said fatigue didn’t slow her down. The assistant principal at Lakeside High School kept working through her treatment and recovery. “The kids energize me,” she said. “You can put fatigue on the back burner when you’re talking to a kid.” Her personal life hasn’t slowed, either. Thanks to her therapy, she was able to swim while on vacation in Hawaii and is now planning a snorkeling adventure in Belize. “You don’t have to limit yourself,” she said. “You can go out and lead a normal life again.”For more information about oncology rehabilitation at NHRMC, call Oleander Rehabilitation Center at 452-8104.