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New rehabilitation program offered to cancer survivors at Essentia Health

Every cancer survivor has to find a new “normal” after a diagnosis and treatment. Helping each one reach his or her fullest recovery is the goal of Essentia Health’s new comprehensive cancer rehabilitation program.

While rehabilitation has been common for patients who have had a heart attack or stroke, bringing services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and counseling to cancer patients is new.

These services made a world of difference to 54-year-old Greta Diede of Wahpeton. She was diagnosed with breast cancer almost a year ago, and went through surgery and radiation treatments. She started having regular occupational therapy visits to help reduce pain and swelling and improve mobility, common problems after breast tissue and lymph nodes are surgically removed.

“I went from not being able to brush my hair to being able to cook again,” Diede says. “I’m an avid baker and I wasn’t able to bake until I did the exercises my therapist recommended.” She also was fitted for a pressure sleeve to help reduce the discomfort and swelling in her arm.

Essentia Health has trained 200 healthcare professionals in its clinics and hospitals to launch the new Survivorship Training and Rehabilitation (STAR) program from Oncology Rehab Partners. The program was developed by Dr. Julie Silver, who is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, a cancer survivor and the author of several books on cancer rehabilitation.

The STAR program provides comprehensive rehabilitation care for anyone with a cancer diagnosis, either new or old. A team of specially trained doctors, nurses, rehabilitation therapists, psychologists, dietitians and others work together to meet each survivor’s unique needs. The team helps survivors increase their strength and energy, reduce pain and get back to the tasks of daily life.

The goal is to help cancer survivors recover from treatment and function at their highest level, explains Randon McKibbin, an Essentia Health occupational therapist.

“Cancer treatments are so hard on your body and your body changes,” McKibbin says. “Some people take it for granted that this is the way they are going to be, that this is their ‘new normal.’ But often life can be better. We can help improve their quality of life.”

Dr. Mark Cooper, an Essentia Health radiation oncologist, says cancer care often focuses on diagnosis and treatment, not recovery. “As physicians, we often focus on treating or eradicating cancer,” he says. “The STAR program helps us remember what’s needed for a survivor’s full recovery. And for a patient, that’s what is most important.”

McKibbon says the STAR program also brings the latest research to providers and survivors. For more information, patients can call the Essentia Health Cancer Center in Fargo at 701-364-8910.