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Cancer Patients No Longer Have to Accept a
‘New Normal’ Following Treatment

The STAR Program® (Survivorship Training And Rehabilitation)
at Sturdy

“There were days when I could hardly lift my head off the pillow.”

Sandy Whitman, 60, is a resident of Plainville who was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2013. To her, and many other cancer patients and survivors, facing cancer is a difficult physical and emotional challenge on its own, much less undergoing aggressive treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

“But I did it anyway.”

As someone with a passion for exercise and travel, being sedentary wasn’t an option. “Two days a week,” says Whitman, “I forced myself to go to LIVESTRONG at the Foxboro YMCA, whether I drove or needed someone to take me when I was too fatigued, because the program made me feel good. Not only was it a reason to get me out of the house, it allowed me to see all the friends I’ve made there and it motivated me to exercise and make gradual progress in my strength and endurance.”

The STAR Program® (Survivorship Training And Rehabilitation)

Sturdy Memorial Hospital referred Whitman, among many other cancer patients and survivors either undergoing treatments or in remission, to LIVESTRONG to help her improve strength and increase energy. This 12-week exercise and wellness education program for cancer patients is one of the resources Sturdy’s Oncology Department incorporates as part of its STAR Program® (Survivorship Training And Rehabilitation).

The STAR Program is a hospital-wide, multidisciplinary, oncology rehabilitation program that helps patients mitigate the adverse effects of cancer and treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiation therapy. These powerful treatments are intended to attack cancer cells. But some damage to healthy, normal cells is unavoidable, and this damage can impede physical, social, psychological, cognitive, and vocational functioning. Hence, the STAR Program involves services such as physical therapy; occupational therapy, including lymphedema treatments; speech therapy; nutrition; mental health counseling; wellness, pulmonary, and cardiac rehabilitation programs and resources; and social services.

“Sturdy is fully committed to the STAR Program,” says Karen Messier, MSN, RN, AOCN, Oncology Program & Clinical Manager. “Oncology rehabilitation can help improve treatment side effects such as fatigue, malignant and nonmalignant pain, deconditioning, loss of range of motion, reduced physical strength, and lymphedema, which is swelling in the arms or legs due to lymph node removal as a part of cancer treatment.” It also helps patients manage stress and cognitive issues such as mental fog caused by treatments, commonly called “chemo brain.”

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Recovering Strength

Whitman explains that oncology rehabilitation gave her the strength and courage to reclaim the things in life she loves.

“Because of LIVESTRONG,” says Whitman, who participated from February – April 2014 and continues as a LIVESTRONG mentor, “I was physically and emotionally strong enough to fly out to Texas in August 2014, to see my month-old granddaughter for the first time. I regained the energy to play with my other 14 grandkids. I was able to vacation in Aruba again, where I have a timeshare, and go back to seeing a blues band play every Wednesday night at a local restaurant—something I’ve always looked forward to each week.” She adds that going to Look Good Feel Better at Sturdy when she lost her hair and noticed her pale complexion, gave her the styling and makeup tricks to feel confident in these (public) excursions.

“And as my oncologist Dr. Yavarow said, the strength I gained from the program helped me better tolerate my treatments and recover from side effects more quickly,” says Whitman.

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Restoring Quality of Life

Dr. Colleen Yavarow, board certified Medical Oncologist at Sturdy, believes that “oncology rehabilitation is an important part of healing. A cancer diagnosis and its treatment can cause many potential side effects that can leave one’s health suboptimal. At Sturdy, our approach is to continue with care to get a patient back to enjoying a quality of life. The STAR Program completes this continuum of care.”

In many instances, patients do not feel any ill-effects from the cancer itself at the time of diagnosis and are otherwise in good physical health. It’s often the treatments that can be debilitating. “But with the help of oncology rehabilitation, once high-functioning individuals who are suffering from the side effects of life-prolonging cancer treatments, can return to work or school and the lifestyles and activities they once enjoyed,” says Kathy Martin, BSN, RN, OCN, Oncology Program Nurse Navigator.

Dr. Yavarow adds, “Our focus is to provide individualized treatment for patients at any stage of their care—at the beginning, throughout, and after completing their treatment. The STAR Program offers many services and opportunities for patients regardless of stage, age, and overall condition.”

Managing the disease and its complications compelled Whitman to take a hiatus from her nursing profession. Besides fatigue, another debilitating side effect of treatments she experienced was rheumatoid arthritis (RA), for which chemotherapy accelerated the onset. However, she’s managing her RA with her Sturdy rheumatologist plus associated pain and immobility with occupational therapy at Sturdy, which has provided her with adaptive devices and exercises. Just as Whitman is passionate about exercise and traveling, she’s passionate about nursing and is looking to get back to work as soon as possible.

“Oncology rehabilitation restores not only stamina, but the confidence to get back to life,” says Whitman.

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Boosting Morale

Another patient of Dr. Yavarow as well as Dr. Marcy Bernstein, Chief of Surgery and board certified General Surgeon, is Alyssa Pastore, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2012 as well as lymphoma and melanoma. Pastore, a 35-year-old resident of North Attleboro, has been in remission for two years and counting, and had her surgical, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments at Sturdy. When she felt strong enough after her treatments, she started participating in “Healthy-Steps” at Sturdy. “Healthy-Steps,” provided in partnership with the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation, is a weekly exercise and movement program for cancer patients, intended to improve overall wellness and self-image.

“It’s not just the exercise part that’s a morale booster,” says Pastore, “it’s the positive environment where we’re able to share stories about what we’re going through. The friends I’ve made in ‘Healthy-Steps’ and in the Oncology Department—they can empathize. As much as our families are there for us, they don’t understand what we’re dealing with, so having a support system that we call our ‘cancer family’ is such a valuable thing when you’re going through cancer.”

Pastore has also gone to Sturdy for physical therapy and lymphedema treatments, the latter of which she’ll have to continue, as lymphedema is a chronic condition caused by removal of lymph nodes. Therapies include light exercises, massage, and compression garments to encourage the flow or draining of lymphatic fluids.

“You have to do what it takes to feel better, and I needed to feel better so I could stay positive and strong for my child,” says Pastore, who is raising her seven-year-old son. “He’s the reason I’ve fought as hard as I have; I needed to be there for him. And I’m so grateful Sturdy Oncology has been there for me. I can’t say enough about the love and compassion they have.”

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How the STAR Program Works

Before initiating oncology rehabilitation, Oncology Department staff assess patients’ individual needs. Clinical identifications and findings are then reported to the Oncology Program Nurse Navigator, who ensures patients’ referrals to appropriate STAR Program services. As individual needs and levels of function vary, the STAR Program is offered to all patients and survivors with the opportunity to improve their health and quality of life, whether they are going through treatments, living with the disease as a chronic condition, or are in remission but have lingering issues that rehabilitation can improve.

According to Messier, “The STAR team understands the benefits of oncology rehabilitation, and will receive ongoing education to continue to deliver state-of-the-art oncology rehabilitation services at Sturdy.”

For more information about the STAR Program at Sturdy, call the Oncology Department at 508-236-7010.

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