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Feeling Like Herself Again

Jane Hammond stretching before a walkBefore Jane Hammond was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2012, she loved taking long walks nearly every day. Despite six rounds of chemotherapy, followed by surgery and radiation, she believed that after a short recovery time, she would ease back into her former routine. But the strength didn't return.

"I just wasn't bouncing back," she says. "Mentally, I wanted to be walking, but physically, I lacked the energy and strength. Even worse, I began to feel like I would never get to where I wanted to be." Hammond became one of the first patients to utilize a new program from Augusta Health called Strength After Breast Cancer (SABC), a physical therapy regimen developed at the University of Pennsylvania about five years ago.

Augusta Health physical therapists were trained in the program in early spring, becoming the only location in Virginia to offer SABC, and nearly a dozen women have already "graduated." Although the program is still new, those who've been through it are already seeing major benefits.

"Definitely, I've seen a big change," says Hammond. "After years of feeling stuck in terms of my recovery, I'm now at a whole new level."

Physical therapist Kristin Siegel first heard about SABC while working in Philadelphia at Good Shepherd Penn Partners, which implemented the program after university trials. She was so impressed with the program that when she interviewed at Augusta Health, she talked about bringing those kind of benefits to her work here. The program seemed "like a natural fit for Augusta Health, which is so focused on patient improvement, and providing the latest, best programs," she says.

The program combines education, physical activity, strength training and endurance exercises. These are all geared toward progressively increasing strength and lowering the risk of lymphedema, or swelling in the arms and legs often associated with breast cancer due to removal of lymph nodes as part of treatment.

"What we're seeing is a big effect in terms of overall strength and emotional health," says Cindy Stark, a physical therapist at Augusta Health. "When you feel stronger, you feel more empowered, and that's so helpful for recovery."

Although the SABC program has only been in place a few months, the patients who have been guided through the exercises report significant benefits. Not only do many attain a much higher level of strength than they had previously, but they gain more confidence, and in some cases, see a return in appetite and energy.

All of the traditional advantages of exercise — better sleep, reduced weight, less stress — can help SABC participants move past barriers in their recovery efforts. Even those who have been in remission for years, like Hammond, see benefits that can help them continue forward.

Although she's still working to gain more energy, Hammond now walks about two miles per day, a distance that would have seemed unthinkable before the SABC program. "Definitely, I'm feeling more and more like the person I used to be before breast cancer," she says. "My mobility is very improved. I'm so grateful for Augusta Health and this program. I think any patients who use it will find that their recovery is better, in many ways."

Packing a Punch

A study of the Strength After Breast Cancer program found the following improvements among participants:

  • 80 percent less chance of increased lymphedema
  • 70 percent less chance of developing lymphedema if five or more lymph nodes were removed
  • Improved strength
  • Reduced body fat
  • Improved body image