Months after completing radiation treatments and chemotherapy for stage 3 esophageal cancer in 2018, Richard Wagner was declared cancer-free by his medical team at the Sentara Martha Jefferson Cancer Center. While the news was definitely worth celebrating, Wagner knew the struggle to regain a sense of normalcy in his life would continue.
The disease and powerful chemotherapy drugs took a toll on Wagner’s body, causing adverse effects such as poor muscle tone and weakness, hearing loss, and balance problems. He also developed shingles in the midst of his therapy and was 30 pounds underweight by the time his treatments ended.
“I had the best treatments and the best medical team possible, and I was cancer-free—but the battle was not over,” says Wagner, 83, who now lives near Charlottesville after a long, distinguished career as a CBS News correspondent based in various parts of the world. “It was comforting to know I wasn’t going to die of cancer and its related ailments, but I wasn’t home free at all. I was generally in bad physical shape from the cancer, which is such an evil disease, as well as the aftereffects of chemotherapy.”
One of Wagner’s doctors told him about Sentara Martha Jefferson’s Cancer Rehab and Renewal Program, which is designed to help cancer survivors as well as patients who are still undergoing treatment reclaim their lives and establish healthy habits. Wagner jumped at the chance to enroll.
“This program seemed to be exactly what I needed to restore a good quality of life and get back to the activities I enjoy,” he says.
Taking Back Control
It’s not uncommon for cancer patients to feel generally powerless over their bodies and lives as a whole. In addition to the physical issues Wagner experienced, cancer treatments may cause patients to become extremely fatigued, lose joint flexibility and mobility, and suffer a general decline in fitness. Cancer Rehab and Renewal can help patients reestablish a sense of control as they work to regain independence, become stronger and feel better overall.
“After treatment, patients are happy to have their cancer resolved, but they often encounter a whole other group of issues as well,” says Michele Howe, PT CLT-LAN, one of the program’s directors and session leaders. “We work closely with each participant and tailor the exercise program for their needs. Ultimately, they gain a sense of empowerment and confidence in their ability to raise their fitness and daily functioning to a higher level. They really feel like they are taking back their bodies and their lives.”
The 12-week exercise program, which was first offered in April 2018, is customized for each individual’s unique needs. Following an initial assessment, a cancer exercise specialist guides each participant through three group or individual exercise sessions a week, offering access to a variety of gym equipment, a walking/jogging track, resistance devices and therapy tools to gradually improve mobility and cardiorespiratory fitness. The sessions, which are free, are offered at the Sentara Martha Jefferson Health and Wellness Center. Participants need a doctor’s referral to enroll.
“The rehab program is a good starting point for patients to help rebuild the sense of self that can be lost when going through a serious illness like cancer,” says clinical exercise specialist Tracey Hill, who co-directs the program and leads sessions.
In addition to group and individual exercise, participants are invited to attend group coaching sessions on topics such as daily living activities, lymphedema (blockage in the lymphatic system following lymph node removal or other cancer treatment), scar management, energy conservation and stress management.
Staying Fit Boosts Recovery
Research shows that many cancer patients have better outcomes when they participate in some type of fitness program while undergoing treatment, according to Howe. And once they are finished with treatments, these individuals tend to bounce back quickly to their baseline fitness level.
Michelle Edwards, 57, began the cancer rehab program in August 2019, in the midst of chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. The customization of the sessions allowed her to continue with fitness efforts even during times when she was not feeling well. When she was too weak for strength training workouts, for example, she focused on stretching. In December, she took a hiatus from the program to recover from her lumpectomy. Once she resumed exercising in January, however, she recovered quickly, thanks to the rehab training she had begun the previous summer.
“I didn’t have a strong exercise regimen before my cancer diagnosis, but this program put me on the path toward doing something good for myself,” says Edwards, a training consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton. “Even on days when I felt bad from chemo treatments, just having someone to say, ‘It’s okay—just do what you’re able to do, and don’t push it,’ was motivating. It also gave me a reason to get out of the house for something besides chemotherapy.”
Her exercise group also became an important part of her support network, giving her an outlet for sharing concerns and triumphs with other cancer survivors.
“I started from a good place emotionally because I have a strong support system of family and friends,” says Edwards, who was able to take a cruise on the Danube River with her husband, Wayne, and her mother in the midst of treatments. “I’m not normally one to be drawn to support groups, but the ladies I worked out with every week almost became an organic support group, even though it was not structured as such. We had similar diagnoses, similar treatments and many of the same doctors. In the course of exercising together, we shared our experiences and encouraged each other.”
Finding a New Normal
Since completing the Cancer Rehab and Renewal Program last year, Wagner believes his balance and strength have improved, though he still uses a cane. Overall, he’s feeling better.
“I found Michelle and Tracey wonderfully knowledgeable about what had to be done to restore my physical abilities,” says Wagner, who in March celebrated 30 years of marriage to his “forever Valentine,” Donna Lewis-Wagner. “The benefit of cancer rehab is that it helps you address what’s left after you’re pronounced cancer-free, when you realize that the struggle is not over. My physical condition has improved as a result of this program, and it’s helped to keep me motivated. I’m grateful that Sentara Martha Jefferson offers this program, which should be an essential part of anyone’s overall cancer care.”