Survivorship programs for cancer patients play a role in recovery and reclaiming quality of life. The one at Columbus Regional Health offers continued care for cancer survivors long after their treatments end.
Although the program has existed for more than 20 years, only an estimated 30 percent of patients take advantage of the services offered, hospital staff said.
“There are so many areas that they don’t think about as being something they could get help with,” said Holly Voyles, mental health and rehabilitation administrative coordinator at Columbus Regional.
All cancer patients receive a physical and functional impairment assessment screening to identify factors that could be affecting them during treatment, and once treatment has stopped, Voyles said. The screening process identifies impairments that may range from cognitive to physical issues resulting from the patient’s cancer treatment.
“Many cancer patients think these things are just a part of treatment they must deal with,” Voyles said. “But there are actually rehabilitation services out there for each of these impairments that can help them.”
Even those who have issues getting around their home can benefit from rehabilitative services, which can help individuals to outfit their homes with necessary tools and even smartphone apps to aid in their progress.
Every patient should have rehab at some point to help them get through and to do the best they can do for quality of life, Voyles said.
“Most people don’t even consider it,” she said.
“They are not thinking about anything outside of their treatment. So identifying areas where additional help is needed is something for the nurses and physicians to catch.”
Dr. Kevin McMullen, a radiation oncologist at Columbus Regional, is a big proponent of the survivorship program and considers it to be yet another holistic approach to cancer treatment.
“It’s really more a way of thinking than a program,” McMullen said. “Programs are only as good as the menu you set up for people to follow. When you set up a menu, you box people in.”
For McMullen, survivorship is more about understanding and addressing each individual patient’s needs. A doctor has to be fully aware of the person as a whole patient so they can counsel and educate them about what is being done to monitor their condition and look for recurrence of disease. It is essentially a multifaceted approach, he said.
“You have to view the patient as a comprehensive whole person, as a survivor,” he said.
“And that means thinking about watching cholesterol, hypertension, diet, exercise and other factors that can impact their overall health.”
It isn’t the intention of the program to pin people in to a strict plan, because that inevitably hinders the doctors’ and caregivers’ ability to be flexible in addressing additional issues that may arise, McMullen said.
He said he believes it comes down to taking the time to get to know patients and their overall needs.
“You can’t be a good survivorship care provider unless you take time to go through all that,” McMullen said.
Although staff is trained to recognize the signs that a patient might need rehabilitative services, it is ultimately up to patients and their interest in participating. Patients need to be educated about what happens following treatment and to be made aware of what questions to ask and what help is available.
Regardless of where a patient has received treatment, the survivorship program is open to anyone of any age who has had cancer, Voyles said. Once a patient has been evaluated, the rehabilitative program the patient is given is catered to their specific needs, she said.
When a patient’s need for rehabilitation is identified, he or she can be referred and start therapy in as little as one week. Depending on the patient’s situation, programs can last from a few weeks to six months, when necessary, which is generally covered by insurance, Voyles said.
The range of rehabilitative programs offered is extensive.
If a patient is experiencing extreme fatigue, swelling, issues with memory, balance, trouble speaking, walking or even functioning in their home, the program offers a range of occupational, lymphedema, physical, speech and hearing therapies at several facilities, Voyles said.
Patients should take advantage of online and print resources regarding survivorship, as it is critically important for them to be asking questions, McMullen said.
“More patients are getting survivorship care manuals of some kind when they finish treatment,” he said. “So they have an idea of what is going to happen down the road.”
Maintaining an active, healthy lifestyle is equally important as continuing imaging tests and close monitoring, McMullen said.
“Self care things should be talked about on a regular basis,” he said. “Things they have to do to care for themselves and take ownership of it.”
“You have to view the patient as a comprehensive whole person, as a survivor. And that means thinking about watching cholesterol, hypertension, diet, exercise and other factors that can impact their overall health.”
— Dr. Kevin McMullen, radiation oncologist at Columbus Regional Health
Columbus Regional Hospital is a national STAR (Survivorship Training and Rehabilitation) Certified Rehabilitation Center. The STAR program has been adopted nationally as a best practice model for survivorship care by leading cancer centers.
The hospital’s cancer center is located on the main campus at 2400 E. 17th St., Columbus.
Information: 812-669-1284, or visit crh.org/Cancer