How tailored physiotherapy is changing lives of cancer patients
Through her work as a physiotherapist, Southern Cross Healthcare’s Transformation Lead Lou James has seen firsthand how debilitating cancer treatments can be.
“I was seeing patients suffering major physical and emotional issues during and after their cancer treatments and I figured there had to be a better way to support them through this treatment journey,” she said.
James created her first specifically-designed physiotherapy programme for cancer patients in 2005, launching cancer rehab foundation PINC & STEEL a year later. Lou has been working to improve outcomes for those patients ever since and remains actively involved with the foundation in a governance and support capacity.
Last year, Lou joined the team at Southern Cross Healthcare where she is developing more holistic cancer care solutions that in the future will give people the end-to-end treatment and support, they need.
Patients can encounter multiple healthcare providers when being treated for cancer, including surgery, endoscopy clinics, radiation therapy, physiotherapy, psychology, and occupational therapy.
“We see this at Southern Cross Healthcare, where the care covers the diagnosis, treatment and recovery stages,” James said.
“Cancer treatments obviously vary from person to person, depending on their illness and their situation.
“But whatever the diagnosis a more integrated treatment pathway with more wraparound support could make a really big difference to a patient's quality of life during and after their treatment.”
Rebuilding after cancer treatment
Southern Cross member Julian* said he was able to turn to a variety of treatments for his physical and mental wellbeing when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 bowel cancer last year.
“I’ve had psychological support in terms of trauma recovery ... and I’ve had physiotherapy for my physical wellbeing,” he said.
Rehab physiotherapy was particularly important for getting his strength and range of movement back after two major surgeries – an emergency procedure to remove the large mass in his bowel, and again to remove part of his liver where the cancer had spread.
“I lost a lot of muscle mass and almost all of my core strength,” Julian said.
“I also have neuropathy as one of my treatment side effects, so can’t feel my feet very well.
“So my physiotherapist had to start with the absolute basics with me to improve my balance, strength and mobility.”
Julian’s physiotherapist, Kath Broad, from Active Plus, a Southern Cross Healthcare joint venture partner, said rehab physiotherapy can help cancer patients at whatever stage they are at with their treatment.
“We like to say to people that we want to see them as early as possible, because the sooner we can see people and help them manage the side effects of treatment the better. It is much easier to maintain strength and function during treatment than it is to regain it after the treatment is completed,” she said.
“But having said that, it’s also never too late, so if you get to the end of your treatment and you’re exhausted, we can start to rebuild.”
Broad said the end goal is to always help people to be as mobile and have as much of a normal life as possible the whole way through their cancer treatments.
“We want to make sure people are supported to get back to living well and doing the things they enjoyed before their diagnosis.
“It will be fantastic to have a future where care like this is commonplace alongside other treatment for cancer.”
For Julian, he’s managed to get back to a place where we can ride his bike and run again.
“I am not as fit or as strong as I used to be,” he said. “But I’m still doing 50km rides and 10km runs now, and I’m really happy with where I am.”
A future where care is more connected
James said she’s working with Southern Cross Healthcare to shape a future where New Zealanders can access more integrated cancer care and support which will not only benefit individuals but also their families.
“We know cancer doesn’t end on the last day of treatment, so we need to make sure people are getting the kind of end-to-end treatment and ongoing support they deserve,” she said.
“Whether it’s physiotherapy for easing pain, occupational therapy for returning to work, or counselling to cope with any fear or anxiety, cancer rehabilitation plays a varied and important part in the recovery process.”
James said she’s pleased at how passionate the team at Southern Cross is about this more integrated approach.
“Giving people this kind of support can help ease the side effects that come with tackling this disease and help them better cope with the challenges and changes that cancer can bring.”