James Physical Therapists Help Cancer Patients Live Fuller Lives

Matt Steele and Jamie Carlson PT

The fatigue rolls in and envelopes Matt Steele like a thick fog.

“My eyes just close and I go to sleep,” said Steele, who has multiple myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer. “The next thing I know, it’s 45 minutes later, I wake up, and I’m still tired.”

This is why Steele, 44, recently began twice-a-week physical therapy sessions at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James). His goal is to build his strength and stamina and improve his quality of life.

“We see cancer patients at every point along their continuum of care,” said Karen Hock, MS, PT, CLT-LANA, Rehab Services Manager.

Hock and 12 other physical therapists with special oncology and lymphedema training see patients at the Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center, Martha Morehouse Medical Plaza and recently began seeing outpatients in the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. They work with patients who have been diagnosed with every form of cancer, have undergone a wide range of treatments and surgeries and have a myriad of physical problems.

“It’s all about quality of life and helping our patients lead full lives,” Hock said.

October is National Physical Therapy Month, and a chance to recognize the work of Hock and the PT team at the OSUCCC – James.

***

“What’s your pain level?” Jamie Carlson, PT, DPT, asked Steele as she began his physical therapy session at the Breast Center (where the therapists see breast cancer patients as well as patients with other forms of cancer).

He says it’s an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst.

“What’s your fatigue level?” Carlson asked.

“It’s still pretty bad, it’s a 7,” he said.

Steele has always been active. He’s a hunter and hiker and he and his wife, Lora, are very involved in the lives of his children, Emma, 14, a field hockey player, and Luke, 9, a baseball player.

“I have a stubborn cancer,” he said of his multiple myeloma, which has led to numerous rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, and a stem-cell transplant. He has muscle myalgia, which is muscle pain, and peripheral neuropathy, which causes muscle weakness, tingling and balance issues and also back issues related to his cancer.

“He’s come a long way in three weeks,” Carlson said.

“It’s helping a lot, and she sends me home with homework,” said Steele, who is a determined and optimistic patient.

***

Hock, Carlson and the other physical therapists at the OSUCCC – James work with a lot of breast cancer patients who have lymphedema, a swelling of the arms or legs accompanied by pain and discomfort that can result from surgery.

“We also see a lot of sarcoma (bone and connective-tissue cancers) patients who have had surgery and have strength, gait and balance issues,” Hock said. Many patients who undergo surgeries also need physical therapy, as do those who are in the midst of chemotherapy or radiation.

“We have to adapt to how they’re feeling that day,” Hock said. “They may have just had a chemo treatment and aren’t feeling very good, so we adapt what we do that day.”

***

Carlson starts Steele off with a few stretching exercises, and then he takes a seat on the recumbent elliptical machine and does 12 minutes. He quickly works up a sweat.

Next are several different exercises using resistance bands to work his arms and legs. They help Steele build strength and balance. At his first physical therapy session, Steele had to hold onto a bar with both hands when he worked with the resistance bands. Now he only needs a finger or two for some exercises, and no hands for others.

“I am more tired today than usual,” Steele said.

“That’s because we’re moving you through the exercises more quickly than usual,” Carlson said.

“You are?”

“Yes … take a minute and catch your breath,” Carlson said, adding her plan is to “make the exercises a little harder each time, the reps, resistance and adding new equipment, to build his stamina.”

***

Hock began her physical therapy career in the late 1980s, when cancer treatments were not as advanced as they are today and the prognosis for many patients wasn’t good.

“Cancer was considered terminal back then,” she said. “It’s not that way anymore, and there are millions of people living with cancer or in remission. The doctors take care of the cancer and our job is to help people have the best quality of life possible and reach their goals.”

Many years ago, Hock worked with a woman whose goal was to walk down the aisle at her wedding.

“She did, and for me, that’s the reward of this profession,” Hock said.

***

After some leg presses, pushups and an exercise called the fire hydrant, Steele ended his session with six minutes on the treadmill.

“What’s your pain level now?” Carlson asked after he finished.

“It’s a 3.”

“And your fatigue level?”

“It’s a 2. I feel good all around. I have a lot more energy when I leave here. But I do get tired later, when I get home,” Steele said.

“The goal is to make that energy level last longer,” Carlson said.

There’s a quote from cancer survivor and former NFL quarterback Jim Kelly on the door of one of the physical therapy rooms at the Breast Center: “Make today better for those fighting for tomorrow.”

“Being part of that journey for our patients is a privilege,” Carlson said.

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