Growth of oncology rehab service an indicator of need

As cancer survival rates continue to improve in Canada thanks to life-saving interventions such as surgery and chemotherapy, rehabilitation is helping to rebuild the lives that have been dismantled, even shattered, by the disease. For Toronto Rehab’s growing inpatient Oncology Rehabilitation Service, making rehab an integral part of the cancer care system in the province has become its leitmotif.

In Canadian Cancer Statistics 2005, the latest annual statistical prediction from the Canadian Cancer Society, it is estimated that nearly 150,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer this year. As the nation’s population ages, the number of new cancer cases will only increase, meaning more people will seek critical cancer treatments to combat the disease.

But while these important treatments are helping to save lives and improve cancer survival rates, rehabilitation for recovering cancer patients like Claire Lauzon is proving to give their lives back. To Claire, “when you’ve been touched by cancer, quality of life becomes the number-one goal.”

“As a cancer patient, you don’t realize just how much strength you lose while in hospital,” says Claire, who after being diagnosed with breast cancer, which had spread to her spinal cord, underwent radiation and chemotherapy. For someone who also lives with severe osteoarthritis, it was a particularly difficult regimen that left her weakened and unable to walk. “I was immobile; I was in a lot of pain and discomfort and really couldn’t take care of myself. I just wanted to get better, get stronger and get home.”

Now the spirited 61-year old feels she’s one of the lucky ones. Not just because she’s now a breast cancer survivor, but also because she was given a chance to build lost strength and regain the independence stripped from her during her acute illness. She credits the Oncology Rehabilitation Service at Toronto Rehab, Canada’s largest adult rehabilitation, complex continuing and long-term care hospital, for giving her a fuller, more independent life.

With the help of an inter-professional team of nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, a dietitian, pharmacist and physician, the 15-year Toronto District School Board veteran made great strides during her six-week stay at Toronto Rehab. Determined to beat the illness and live a life as fully as possible by keeping a positive outlook, Claire’s progress in rehab surprised even her family, who believed she would never walk again following her cancer experience.

“I knew that if I kept the right attitude and worked hard at my therapy every day that I would prove everyone wrong and would walk again on my own. And that’s exactly what I did,” says Claire. “Thanks to some great rehab, I can do more things now than I could before my diagnosis. I now am able to dress myself, go for walks, relax on my deck and even go shopping. It may seem like little steps, but they’re big steps to me.”

The growing case for cancer rehab

Toronto Rehab’s inpatient Oncology Rehabilitation Service, located at the hospital’s Hillcrest Centre in northwest Toronto, is one of only a handful of services in the province dedicated to providing inpatient rehabilitation for those recovering from, or living with, cancer. Last year, more than 40 patients were admitted to the service, with an average length of stay of 30 days; however, patients requiring more time to meet their rehab goals may stay longer.

Since opening its doors in 2001 as a four-bed unit, the service has doubled in size to accommodate the growing demand for post-acute therapy. Program Service Manager Cathy Brandt says the growth of the service is proof-positive of the swelling appreciation for the value of what rehab has to offer cancer survivors.

“Patients’ lives are altered so dramatically by cancer, they quickly come face to face with their own mortality. Rehab has become particularly important for cancer survivors in order to minimize the risk of long-term disability and pain following cancer treatment,” says Cathy, who says that while the service is part of Toronto Rehab’s Musculoskeletal (MSK) Rehabilitation Program, not all patients admitted to oncology rehab have MSK cancer. “The goal for us is to get them home so they have a better quality of life. We have purposely kept our service definition broad, as we don’t want to limit the type of cancer patients we admit. We feel there is a need to have a varied patient population provided that patients have achievable rehab goals.”

In view of this growing demand, plans are in place to develop both outpatient and outreach services to provide support to cancer patients in the community. With a goal to help cancer patients regain lost function, decrease pain and improve independence, Toronto Rehab will be working with Cancer Care Ontario and other health care providers to ensure rehabilitation is an integral component of the cancer care continuum.

Claire, who was discharged in July 2005 after her six-week rehab stay, now enjoys time at home with her family and friends. She thinks that more rehab programs like the one offered at Toronto Rehab should be made available to cancer patients everywhere, as it has had an “undeniable impact on my quality of life.”