Hidden Healthcare: Keeping cancer patients moving

Friday, February 05, 2021 exercise groups
Hidden Healthcare: Keeping cancer patients moving From left: Occupational Therapist Sharyn McGowan, Physiotherapist Anne McIntosh and Exercise Physiologist Aimee Ryan run Bendigo Cancer Centre's exercise programs.
Hidden Healthcare takes a look behind the scenes at some of the people powering one of regional Victoria's largest hospitals.

Some cancer patients in the throes of chemotherapy can struggle to walk, the thought of exercise is exhausting enough.

Yet in recent years, backed by a growing body of scientific evidence, exercise has emerged as an important tool in the battle with cancer.

A small group of allied health clinicians at Bendigo Health have been keeping Loddon Mallee patients moving, reframing the notion that a sedentary lifestyle is most appropriate for cancer patients.

They work on the basis that while rest and recuperation is important, exercise improves blood flow and can help the body tolerate chemotherapy better, improving the effectiveness of treatment.

“Exercise is the greatest form of cancer treatment that’s not chemotherapy,” Exercise Physiologist Aimee Ryan said.

She recalled the impact exercise had on one of her recent patients, who went from the feeling of walking on glass to riding the O’Keefe rail trail in a matter of months.

A tailored exercise plan, based on her disease, current stage of treatment and her physiology helped Aimee’s patient get to that stage.

Not everyone can exercise in the same way – some cancers cause bone density issues, others low blood pressure – and the team has the skills and expertise to recognise that, in conjunction with the treating doctor.

The team, which also includes physiotherapist Anne McIntosh and Occupational Therapist Sharyn McGowan, run an exercise in cancer clinic and a cancer rehabilitation program at Bendigo Health.

One of their challenges is selling the benefits of exercise to their patients.

“You’ve got someone who has to sleep for 4-6 hours in the afternoon because they are so tired from their chemo and we’re saying don’t have a sleep do some exercise first – it’s a hard sell sometimes but once they do it they see and feel the benefits,” Aimee said.

Roughly 20 per cent of patients who come through the Bendigo Cancer Centre are involved in an exercise program.

The team would like this to increase further and be involved in conversation at the start of a cancer patient’s journey, for what they call ‘prehabilitation’ - building up fitness levels before chemotherapy begins.

“Research has shown the benefits of exercise are more pronounced the closer it’s done to chemo sessions. Some people for example do these exercise sessions before and after chemo,” Anne said.

Sharyn, who runs the cancer rehabilitation group program, said the collegiality of the exercise gave patients a sense of normality and a feeling of control back in their lives.

“It’s empowering telling and showing them there is something you can do,” she said.