'I Felt Empowered': Helping Cancer Patients Take Back Control

Caitlin Delaney's cancer journey was aided -- to her surprise -- by the power of exercise, massage and other complementary therapies. And she's not alone.

The mother of two had just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer after months of headaches, extreme fatigue and abdominal pain -- symptoms she passed off as stress.

She was 39 years-old and after two weeks, started weekly chemo.

In her second round, Delaney remembers having a panic attack -- when it all hit her.

"I think in that moment I realised what this stage four diagnosis meant... it's probably one of the worst things that could happen to you, and you are just trying to keep it together," Delaney told 10 daily.

"I became very scared to sit in that chair."

Delaney was then offered a massage or reflexology, and was instantly relaxed.

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It became a regular routine as she moved through treatment at the Chris O'Brien Lifehouse, a cancer hospital that now sees 60,000 patients annually after being set up five years ago.

It's also the largest facility in Australia to offer evidence-based complementary therapies such as reflexology, massage and acupuncture along with exercise and nutrition to improve patients' management of symptoms and their well-being.

Head of Supportive Care and Integrative Oncology Dr Judith Lacey said it's a new and rapidly growing area of cancer medicine.

"Integrated oncology has grown out of the fact that we now have an ability to keep people living longer with cancer, so it's important to keep them living well," she told 10 daily.

"We are getting better at treating cancer, but we need to treat the whole person, not just the physical condition."

"Western medicine has certain limitations as to what can be achieved in terms of maintaining wellness, so we are looking at how to integrate these other therapies safely into comprehensive cancer care."

It's an area that is attracting growing research, particularly in the United States, across various forms of cancer.

Lacey worked on a study, published In October, that introduced interventions to a group of patients with stage four melanoma that were being treated using immunotherapy.

Australia has the second highest incidence of melanoma in the world. It's also the country's fourth most common cause of cancer, accounting for 3.8 percent of all cancer deaths in 2016.

While this diagnosis previously meant an incurable progressive disease and imminent death, immunotherapy drugs or 'checkpoint inhibitors' have increased patients' chance of survival to between two to four years.

According to Lacey, immunotherapy brings very different side effects to those of chemotherapy. The potential to manage these through exercise and complementary therapies was not well-researched.

"We found that these patients had a lot of fatigue and sleep problems," she said.

"They were generally good at sticking to exercise programs, and were interested in therapies to manage anxiety, sleep disturbances and introduce more self care into their lives," she said.

The study suggested the model of care could, with further research, proved useful in other cancer populations, such as lung or kidney cancer, where immunotherapy is emerging as a standard of care.

While the effectiveness among ovarian cancer patients is yet to be researched, Delaney described the services at Lifehouse's 'LivingRoom' as "invaluable".

She also saw counsellors and nutritionists as well as an exercise physiologist who built a tailored exercise plan to use "on her good days".

Image: Supplied

"Exercise has always been important for me. Not only was I faced with this diagnosis, I had no energy from the chemotherapy and faced losing all my fitness," she said.

"This not only prepared me physically -- I think it helped me with my chemo uptake and to bounce back after long surgeries -- but the mental benefits were great."

The Clinical Oncology Society of Australia recommends exercise is embedded as part of standard practice in cancer care, as an "adjunct therapy" to counteract the adverse effects of cancer and its treatment.

READ MORE: Look Good Feel Better: Helping Patients Face Cancer With Confidence

Almost two years on, Delaney is cancer free. She is still having massages and reflexology as she moves through three-weekly treatment on a maintenance therapy drug to "hopefully keep the cancer away".

Looking back, she can't imagine going through her treatment without complementary therapies.

"You feel so powerless as a cancer patient," she said.

"You're poked and prodded, you go through blood test after blood test.

"To feel like you can take back some control and do something that makes you feel good, but can also benefit you, is invaluable."

Lacey agrees, saying a lot of work in complementary therapy is about "empowerment".

"The idea is that people need to reconnect with themselves and find out how to live their lives differently," she said.

Contact the author: ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au.