Linda Milley. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
When the treatment stage ends for cancer patients, some may feel isolated.
“The first thing you feel when you finish treatment is so alone,” said Melva Walsh, seated beside several other cancer survivors at the Easter Seals building in
St. John’s. “I had seven weeks of treatment, and then nothing. You’re waiting then probably two months to go back and see the doctor. You had all this contact with the medical profession and the nurses and everybody else that was going through it, and then all of a sudden there was nothing, and you kind of wonder, where do I go from here?”
A program recently offered by Eastern Health in St. John’s aims to reach out to cancer survivors who have finished treatment.
Titled Cancer Transitions: Moving Beyond Treatment, the program pays attention to the physical and emotional effects cancer can have on survivors.
“When people are on treatment, they’re very focused on getting their treatment, getting their chemo or radiation and whatnot,” said Carolyn Jones, a social worker at Eastern Health’s Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Centre in St. John’s. She is one of two facilitators involved with Cancer Transitions.
“It’s when they’re done their treatment and they’re trying to settle back into their lives that they often run into trouble with things like depression, anxiety (and) worries about managing some of the post-treatment symptoms that are ongoing.”
Some members of the 12-person group have gone several months without seeking treatment for cancer, while others were weeks removed when the program started in late October. They had weekly meetings every Tuesday for six weeks until early December.
In Week 1, the group had an introductory session that covered general wellness matters. The second week introduced a physiotherapist to the group who talked about exercise and wellness.
Week 3 focused on coping with stress, while the fourth week welcomed a dietitian to talk with the group about healthy eating. An oncologist discussed the long-term effects of cancer treatment in Week 5, while the final week focused on moving on from cancer treatment.
The physiotherapist remained with the group through the final four weeks to help explore exercise techniques that work within the limitations of cancer survivors who have undergone treatment.
Each participant was also given a pedometer to help them monitor their exercise at home.
On Tuesday, facilitators were getting feedback from the participants that will be kept in mind when the program is offered again.
For Walsh, meeting with fellow cancer survivors on a weekly basis made her feel less alone. Those thoughts were echoed by other members of the group.
“For me, I went into a form of depression,” explains Sherri Frampton. “I just didn’t know where to go after all this treatment.”
One of the social workers who served as a facilitator for the program told Frampton about it.
“To this day, I’ve seen a big change in myself being here.”
Shellie Dawe of Torbay went through six months of treatment, and while she was open to the idea of taking part in the program, she also had concerns it would prove to be too depressing for her.
“I didn’t find it like that. I found everyone was 110 per cent positive. Everyone had their own story, and we could relate to each other, even though our cancers were different. … We all have that common connection, which is cancer I think, and trying to get back to normal. Whatever the new normal is.”
With the latter point in mind, Dawe said she now focuses on living in the present.
“I think we’re all learning to live more in the present than in the past. You can’t change the past.”
Frampton understands it may take time to feel like herself following her treatment for cancer.
“I want to go back to the old Sherri, but I can’t. It’s a new Sherri, but yet you’re still not changed drastically. It’s just a piece of you that probably you lost, but not your whole self. But it comes back after time. … I’m building back up.”
Dawe feels the name “Transitions” is appropriate for the program having now experienced it.
“It is transitioning us from post-chemo back into a normal life, because it seems like we were just in limbo after chemo. I feel like my mind is in a different place from the day I started.”
Trudy Taylor found the speakers to be very informative. She also felt the group dynamic proved beneficial.
“It’s not nice to know that other people have gone through it, but having someone there who can relate to what you’ve gone through — you feel connected.”
Sharon Beer, whose hair was still growing back as the program started, said it was interesting to gain perspective from others who are further removed from receiving treatment.
Marg Hammond of Torbay had breast cancer in 2000 that required a radical mastectomy. She was back at work two months after the procedure, and decided then to avoid dwelling on her history with cancer.
In 2008, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Her cancer has been in remission since April 2011, but a CT scan last month indicated the cancer has returned.
“My attitude is that eventually it’s going to get me, but if it does, it’s going to have to catch up with me first,” she said with a laugh.
She found out about the program through her church bulletin. Hammond was having trouble maintaining a positive outlook on life.
“I needed to get in contact with other people,” she said. “I spent my time trying to give people the impression that, ‘Ok, I’ve got it. I’m moving, and that’s it,’ but I found I needed some supports.”
Hammond said the group is exactly what she was looking for in the end.
Cancer Transitions was initially developed in 2006 by the international non-profit group Cancer Support Community and by LIVESTRONG. The B.C. Cancer Agency introduced the program to Canada a few years later. Eastern Health is offering the program though a $5,000 grant from the provincial Department of Health and Community Services.
It is due to be offered for a second time this spring, and Jones said she views Cancer Transitions as an initiative that could become a permanent fixture at the cancer centre.
“I could see this being an ongoing, forever type of thing, because there’s always going to be people finishing up cancer treatments, and there’s always going to be people having the same kind of issues that a lot of people have. So I think it should be a standard part of our cancer centre program.”
All participants The Telegram spoke with agreed they would like the program to run for more than six weeks, though they intend to stay in touch with one another.