By Jana Soeldner Danger
When Pamela Wetmore finished treatment for breast cancer, she says she felt relieved. She began taking the maintenance tamoxifen her oncologist prescribed, and everything seemed to be OK. Then suddenly, she found herself plunged into depression.
“I knew I had to get up in the morning and get dressed, but I couldn’t make myself do it,” she recalls. “I lost my appetite. I had healthy food in my refrigerator, but I couldn’t make myself cook it. My life wasn’t the same anymore.”
She went weeks without saying anything, but finally told her oncologist about the distress she was experiencing. The doctor gave her medication to alleviate the depression, and then recommended that she try Memorial Healthcare System’s Next Steps, a program designed to provide ongoing support for cancer survivors.
At Next Steps, Wetmore attended workshops and group sessions where she and other survivors met with nutritionists, dieticians, fitness trainers and psychologists who offered help with the problems that often continue long after cancer survivors are finished with treatment. “There was even a financial expert who spoke to us about managing medical bills,” Wetmore says
“Cancer is a very traumatic experience,” says Dr. Alejandra Perez, director of Memorial’s Breast Cancer Center. “Some women do fine after treatment, and others don’t. There can be both physical and emotional problems.”
Among the typical concerns of breast cancer survivors are weight gain, which can result when treatment brings on premature menopause, memory and cognitive impairment and sexual dysfunction. “And there’s the very real fear of recurrence, Perez says. “It stays with them forever, but we can help them put it into perspective.
In addition to Next Steps, Memorial is currently training about 200 staff members to become certified in STAR (Survivorship Training and Rehabilitation), a nationally recognized program co-founded by a Harvard physician who is a breast cancer survivor herself. STAR, which will roll out at Memorial in November, provides online training for oncologists, primary care physicians, nurses, therapists, social workers and administrators about the importance of rehabilitation for cancer survivors and how to better communicate with each other and coordinate resources.
Lisa Callahan, a personal fitness coach who will be teaching a class this fall at Coral Springs Medical Center for women who have had mastectomies, says post-treatment support is important. “I hope to help them learn to trust their own bodies again.”
Wetmore says Next Steps helped her adjust to her own “new normal.” “It gives you resources and the tools you need,” she says, “then it’s up to you to use those tools.”