Cancer Rehab Program Transforms to Meet Needs of Survivors During COVID-19

January 7, 2021 by Sarah Keblin

Despite the many challenges presented by the pandemic, the resilience of UVM Cancer Center patients and continued commitment of providers have led to a silver lining: a way to ensure patients in locations throughout Vermont and upstate New York are receiving the physical and mental health support they need right from the comfort of their own homes.

UVM Cancer Center Steps to Wellness exercise trainer Rebecca Reynolds, B.A., CES/CPT, demonstrates an exercise to cancer survivors via Zoom. (Photo: UVM Cancer Center)

Providers’ commitment helps patients continue wellness activities

Despite the many challenges presented by the pandemic, the resilience of University of Vermont Cancer Center patients and continued commitment of providers have led to a silver lining: a way to ensure patients in locations throughout Vermont and upstate New York are receiving the physical and mental health support they need right from the comfort of their own homes.
 
“This is one bright spot we’ve continued to see shine,” said Patti O’Brien, M.D., UVM assistant professor of medicine, lymphedema specialist, and co-founder of the Cancer Center’s Steps to Wellness Oncology Rehabilitation program. A cancer survivor herself, O’Brien and Steps to Wellness Medical Director Kim Dittus, M.D., Ph.D., UVM associate professor of medicine, have long-envisioned expanding access to the highly successful, medically-informed oncology rehab program they launched nearly a decade ago. 
 
The program, formerly located on Tilley Drive in South Burlington, includes a free, 12-week exercise, nutrition, and education program to support cancer patients both during and after treatment. More than a thousand patients have benefitted from the cancer survivorship program, with outcomes such as better strength, weight management, and lower rates of depression and anxiety seen among participants. Graduates of the program, who often continue after the 12 weeks, regularly comment on the tremendous benefits of belonging to the group. 
 
“Steps to Wellness has become a key part of my being proactive in a quest for health,” says Patricia Johnson, a Stage-4 cancer survivor and committed Steps to Wellness participant. Johnson began the program in December 2019 and was able to continue participating through the pandemic, thanks to expansion of the program to a virtual format. “You are not isolated and alone in this journey,” she says, referring to the Steps to Wellness care team and other participants. 
 
Prior to the pandemic, say O’Brien and Dittus, the greatest challenge was always access. Patients who lived nearby could more easily access this life-changing program. Folks who lived further away often weren’t able to participate because the drive to South Burlington, during open hours, presented a barrier. 
 
When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, the team seized the opportunity to transform the program to a virtual format and the results have been inspiring. An increasing number of patients from a larger geographical region are now meeting for exercise training and other health support. When in-person operations resume, O’Brien and Dittus hope to keep virtual options open to participants.
 
UVM Medical Center and Health Network patients can self-refer into the free, virtual program or can talk to their provider about accessing Steps to Wellness. O’Brien and Dittus, who launched the program with their own funding, plus philanthropy and support and time from hospital colleagues, aren’t finished—they continue to find ways to expand the program and include as many patients as possible. They also hope that through research and assessment, this type of program becomes a standard of care for cancer patients everywhere.
 
“Thanks to the support of UVM Medical Center and the University of Vermont, as well donors and patients, this program has made a difference, and continues to make a difference, in the lives of many Vermonters and now even more people across our region,” said Dittus.
 
Those interested in learning more can view a recorded presentation by O’Brien, Johnson, and Steps to Wellness exercise trainer Rebecca Reynolds, B.A., CES/CPT, which was originally presented at the October 2020 UVM Cancer Center Women’s Health and Cancer Conference.

Patients connected with the UVM Health Network are able self-refer to the Steps to Wellness Oncology Rehabilitation Program at the UVM Cancer Center by calling 802-847-9852, or, are encouraged to talk to their provider about accessing the program.

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