Tango Helps Cancer Survivor Regain Mobility

If you met Tim Hickey today you would never believe his mobility was limited to a wheelchair four years ago.

Cancer and the subsequent treatment to eradicate it had wreaked such havoc on Tim’s body that by the time he entered chemotherapy treatment in March 2012 he had lost more than 77 pounds, resulting in such severe lose muscle mass he couldn’t stand up. He had no balance and or sensation in his hands, fingertips, feet and toes.

In January 2012, Tim had what felt like an aggressive cold that just won’t let up. After about a week of feeling awful, his wife insisted he see a doctor. Tests revealed stage-4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that begins in the white blood cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are part of the body’s immune system. The cancer had spread to his pelvic bone and liver.

Tim began chemotherapy treatments in March 2012 and, thankfully, by Thanksgiving his cancer was in remission. Unfortunately, Tim was left so weak that he could barely lift a spoon and relied on a wheelchair (and his amazing wife) for mobility. After six months of therapy to rebuild strength in his lower legs and core muscles, Tim was able walk with a cane but still experienced nerve pain and loss of feeling in his feet and toes – a condition called chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy.

“Physical therapy so necessary and important but it’s such a drag. It’s hard and you don’t see immediate result. So when they asked me if would be willing to talk to a researcher who had a idea to use art therapy to help patients, I jumped at the chance,” recalls Tim, who began working with Lise Worthen-Chaudhari, a physical rehabilitation specialist with Ohio State’s Neurological Institute.

Tim says the art twist to physical therapy — where researchers encouraged patients to build strength by creating paintings with a motion-sensing paintbrush strapped to the ankle — made therapy so much easier.

“Mentally, the hour went by so much more quickly because I was doing something I could see. I became a regular Picasso,” says Tim, reflecting on the experience.

Despite the intensive therapy, Tim still only had sensation in the balls of his feet, which added to his balance challenges. 

Neuropathy in Hands, Feet Significant Clinical Problem

Loss of feeling in the upper and lower extremities (peripheral neuropathy) is a serious and common problem among cancer patients treated with chemotherapy. Up to 70 percent of patients experience neuropathy and 1 in 3 still have trouble six-months post treatment.

Recent Ohio State University graduate (pre-med/dance major) and former Pelotonia fellow Mimi Lamantia had an idea to use Argentine Tango as a balance intervention for cancer patients experience neuropathy and balance changes as a result of treatment. She partnered with physical rehabilitation expert Worthen-Chaudhari (who also has professional training in dance) to evaluate the impact of a 10-week Argentine Tango class in a group of 30 cancer survivors.

Tim was the first to enroll in the study. And as he put it: “I have two left feet on the dance floor but it sounds like a fun way to do my physical therapy.”

Almost instantly, Tim experienced added sensation in his heels. As he rebuilt strength – both through physical therapy and dance – his balance improved as well. Now he walks without the assistance of a walker or cane.

“I don’t think we would have improved this quickly without the dance intervention. I am so thankful to Mimi and Lise for conducting this research study – and to all of the Ohio State doctors, nurses and therapists involved in getting me – literally – back on my feet and even dancing a bit. I still say OSU is the best. Go Bucks!”

To see Tim dance the Tango and learn more about the Pelotonia-funded Argentine Tango for cancer survivors research, visit http://go.osu.edu/TangoTherapy.