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New rehab program helps cancer survivors

Greta Diede shows one of her therapy exercises she does under the supervision of Essentia Health occupational therapist Randon McKibbin on Thursday, Jan. 8, 2014. Diede, 54, of Wahpeton, N.D., is recovering from cancer surgery. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/David Samson

Greta Diede spent part of Thursday afternoon “walking” her fingers up the wall to test her shoulders’ range of motion.

The exercise is part of her therapy at Essentia Health in Fargo to recover from a double mastectomy about six weeks ago for breast cancer.

The 54-year-old Wahpeton woman is one of the patients in a comprehensive program at Essentia, developed at Harvard Medical School, to help cancer patients regain capabilities after debilitating treatments.

“With cancer, there is no such thing as ‘normal,’ ” Diede said. “I’m still trying to find a new normal.”

Helping her find that new normal is a team of providers, including her oncologist, surgeon, therapist, nurses, dietitian and social workers.

They collaborate in a recovery program called Survivorship Training and Rehabilitation, or STAR. Essentia has trained more than 200 health care professionals in its hospitals and clinics to implement the program.

“They’re all working together as a team,” Diede said. “This helps me so I don’t have to stress about where to go.”

Until recently, cancer patients largely were overlooked when it came to therapy to regain capabilities, long commonplace for accident, heart attack and stroke victims.

“As physicians, we often focus on treating or eradicating cancer,” said Dr. Mark Cooper, a radiation oncologist at Essentia. “The STAR program helps us remember what’s needed for a survivor’s full recovery.”

Although recovery care for cancer often was overlooked, the need now is increasingly recognized.

“There’s more and more research being done about the benefits for these people,” said Randon McKibbin, Diede’s therapist. “The quality of life piece kind of got overlooked for some time.”

The goal for patients, she said, is to enable them to function at their highest level by increasing their strength and energy, and to reduce pain.

Services include physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and counseling.

This is Diede’s second round of therapy in her cancer recovery.

Early last year, she had a lumpectomy, and found she had to work to regain her upper body strength and range of motion.

“I basically was a lump on a couch,” she said.

Unable to brush her hair, she got a haircut. She wasn’t even able to bake before she began her therapy, twice-weekly sessions for four to six weeks.

“She had quite a lot of pain, swelling and reduced range of motion,” McKibbin said. “We had to start pretty small and work our way up.”

Thursday was Diede’s first day in therapy to recover from her cancer surgery in late November.

The pace and extent of her recovery will be known with time. She has to avoid pushing herself too much.

“It really depends on how much I can do without pain,” Diede said. “I do have a tendency to push.”

She wants to regain the strength required to reopen a day care service in her home – and to lift her 18-month-old grandson.

“I definitely will get back to some form of child care,” Diede said. “I miss my babies.”

She’s also looking forward to kayaking and swimming this summer. And maybe, if all goes well with her recovery, maybe even water skiing.

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