Improving quality of life for cancer survivors


Significant advances in the treatment of many types of cancer including breast, prostate and cancer of the blood, mean that more people are surviving their disease and living longer. With increased survivorship comes the importance of supportive care to help patients make the most of their lives after treatment. For many people including Louise Maw and Charlene Buck, rehabilitation has made all the difference.

In mid-September 2003, Louise Maw collapsed in her mother’s home from severe back pain and was paralyzed from the waist down. The 44-year-old mother of two preteen girls was transferred from Brantford General Hospital to Hamilton General Hospital where the cause of her back pain, which had plagued her for more than two years, was finally diagnosed. Louise had lymphoma, a cancer of the blood, which resulted in an overgrowth of lymph cells that invaded and compressed her spinal cord.

The whole experience was very frightening for Louise who was fighting for her life, away from home and away from her children.

“I was so scared, I thought I would never walk again,” said Louise.

At the General, Louise had surgery to remove the growth. The operation, plus another that followed, left her in a weakened condition. In fact, Louise could only move her toes when she was transferred to the Rehabilitation Ward at the Henderson General Hospital in late November 2003.

Unlike any other hospital in the region, the Henderson has 11 rehabilitation beds dedicated to cancer patients who are not yet able to return home or go to another health care facility. The Juravinski Cancer Centre and the Henderson share the same site, making it convenient for rehabilitation patients like Louise with little or no mobility, to receive their chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

The Henderson became Louise’s home for the next two months. Louise worked hard to regain her strength receiving three hours of physiotherapy and occupational therapy five days a week.

Just before Christmas, Louise stood holding parallel bars for the first time since September.

“My children, my parents, my friends at church, my nurses, therapists and doctors were all behind me. They kept on telling me I could do it. Although I was afraid, I kept on trying and I did it,” said Louise.From that point on, Louise had increased confidence and was motivated to walk again. Just a few days before being discharged, Louise’s hard work paid off, and she took her first steps with the use of a walker.

“My therapists were so happy for me. They asked me to show the nurses on the ward what I could do, and I used my walker and walked for them. When I stopped, I looked back and couldn’t believe that I had walked three metres,” said Louise.

“There’s no stopping me now.”

Louise still has a long road ahead of her before she can return to her own home. She will continue to receive rehabilitation as an inpatient at Brantford General Hospital, and will return to the Juravinski Cancer Centre to complete her intervenous chemotherapy once every three weeks until spring.

One of Louise’s friends from church gave her a ‘guest’ book in anticipation of her discharge to Brantford General Hospital. The book was left at the nursing station on the rehabilitation ward, and staff and patients soon filled it with inspirational thoughts and memories that Louise will always cherish.

“I want to remember these people. They’ve given me so much encouragement and support. We’ve had lots of good times together. They said I have to come back and visit, and I will,” said Louise.

Rehabilitation was also vital for Charlene Buck, a 39-year-old Hamilton Mountain resident, who had surgery for a brain tumour in 2001, followed by radiation treatments at the Juravinski Cancer Centre. Unfortunately, her cancer returned in November 2002 and Charlene had to undergo a second surgery to remove the growth.

For Charlene, the affects of two surgeries and radiation therapy were decreased mobility on the left side of her body, especially her left leg. Performing regular activities of daily living such as standing while making dinner and getting in and out of a bathtub were no longer easy to do.

Following surgery, Charlene was admitted to the Henderson’s rehabilitation ward where she received two weeks of intensive physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Therapists worked with Charlene to strengthen her muscles, and help her re-learn and practice many common tasks of daily living such as opening jars, walking up steps and getting in and out of the bathtub.

“We did a lot of neat exercises you would probably find in a child’s classroom that were really valuable to helping me regain strength and confidence,” said Charlene.

Charlene also installed some equipment around her home including adding a grab bar in the bathtub and an extra railing on the staircase, to help make her home environment safer and easier for her to navigate.

“The most important thing rehabilitation offers people is hope. It reassures patients and their families that everything possible is being done to restore the patient to optimal health,” said Jan Park Dorsay, Clinical Nurse Specialist, Rehabilitation and Orthopedics at Hamilton Health Sciences. “Patients who come here for rehabilitation want to go home and be independent, and we do our best to help them do that.”