New Program Helps Cancer Patients Get Back to Favorite Activities

June 12, 2015

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation beat Scott Christensen’s throat cancer, but left him with a list of other physical impairments. “I began to lose my ability to swallow and I had to get a feeding tube,” he said. “I had swelling in my neck because my lymph nodes were blocked and clogged with scar tissue, and I was having trouble moving my left arm.”

While happy to be alive and cancer-free, the 67-year-old wasn’t ready to give up his golf game or playing with his grandchildren. Determined to get as much of his pre-cancer life back as possible, Christensen teamed up with Mercy’s Therapy Services and got to work on rehabilitation.

“Scott is a really special patient,” said Mercy physical therapist Julia Evans. “He was highly motivated and was very compliant with what we did. We started seeing changes within the first couple of sessions with him.”

Evans worked on Christensen’s lymphedema by massaging the swelling in his neck and breaking up the scar tissue. He also had physical therapy for his arm and speech therapy. One of his biggest goals was learning to swallow again so he could get the feeding tube removed. “It was not a comfortable thing,” he said. “If I would’ve had to have it for the rest of my life, it would’ve been a disaster.”

As he hits the golf course, Christensen is proof that therapy during or after cancer treatment helps patients live their lives to the fullest. “My ultimate goal is to treat the patient and the cancer,” said Dr. Kimberly Creach, Mercy radiation oncologist. “But to be completely honest, frequently I get blinders on and I really do treat the cancer and forget about a lot of the rest of the patient.” Not anymore, as rehabilitation is a standard part of Mercy’s complete cancer treatment plan. Mercy is the only provider in southwest Missouri to offer the Survivorship Training and Rehab (STAR) Program, which emphasizes therapy as a way for cancer patients to improve strength and energy, alleviate pain and improve daily function.

“The STAR Program makes it easy for traditional cancer doctors to collaborate with therapists, psychologists, and dieticians to get our patients moving forward on the path of recovery,” Dr. Creach explained. “It reminds me to treat the whole patient and ensure they have the best quality of life they can possibly have.” With just a few keystrokes, doctors can make the necessary referrals through Mercy’s electronic health records.

“Our goal is really to get the patients back to doing what they love,” said Evans. “On their first visit, we ask them what their goals are. For some, it’s just getting out of bed. For others, like Scott, it’s getting back on the golf course. We do a complete evaluation and then get to work.”

For Christensen, knowing he had a team of providers made all the difference. “They’re all so caring and treated me like I was their only patient,” he said. “They give you the confidence that they’re doing everything physically and mentally possible to have a positive outcome for your cancer treatment. They were spectacular. I can’t thank them enough. I owe them my life, to be honest.”

These days, it’s a very full life. Not only is Christensen spending time on the golf course, he just bought a boat and plans to put in a lot of hours on local lakes. “We’ll be enjoying that with the whole family – our kids and grandkids,” he said.

For more information on the STAR Program®, click here.