At a Brattleboro Memorial Hospital event last spring, Phyllis Benay spoke about her experience receiving treatment and rehabilitation at the hospital following lung cancer surgery. The following is the second and final part of an interview she later gave to help BMH celebrate 25 years of providing Oncology Services.
My surgery for lung cancer took place at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center on Jan. 18, 2011. Chemotherapy was scheduled to start at BMH on March 1. What scared me the most about getting treatment was my ultra-sensitivity to medication. I had just gone through several weeks of craziness from the pain medication they gave me after surgery. Now, even before I began chemotherapy treatment, I was going to have to take steroids.
Treatments took place once a month with weekly blood tests and check-ups in between. I had to have a high dosage of steroids along with my chemo treatments and had difficulty tolerating it. The medications were keeping me awake all night, so then I was given pills to help me sleep.
The steroids did, however, help cut some of the side effects. I had some mild nausea and my hair thinned a little but didn't completely fall out, but the mental anguish and physical fatigue were terrible. I would feel like I was just coming back to life a couple weeks after a chemo session and then it was already time for another. At one point, I told a friend I honestly didn't know if I had the strength to go on.
All through this I was obsessively asking what was going to happen to me. Where was this going? Dr. Mills just kept reminding me to sit tight and wait; there was a rehab program she would prescribe after chemotherapy was done. Right after the last treatment on May 2, I asked her again. She explained it was a 10-week program that started at the end of the month, however, she thought it might be too soon to attempt it after my chemotherapy. But since I work in academics, that was the only window of time I would have available to try it, unless I retired.
I met Jeff Harr, Cardio/Pulmonary Coordinator in the BMH Cardio/Pulmonary Department for my first rehab appointment on May 30. After putting me through some conditioning tests, he asked what I was doing for exercise. I didn't have the energy to do much more than walk my dog, which was only about a quarter-mile each day. Jeff said my fatigue was mostly due to de-conditioning, which made me angry at first because it had been less than six months since my surgery and I had just completed chemotherapy treatments. He told me that the reduced capacity of my lungs from the cancer wouldn't be a problem for anyone other than a professional runner. I could, in time, rebuild my stamina.
They put me on a treadmill for six hours a week. I had never been on one before so they taught me how to breathe properly while exercising. Week by week I saw a change. My energy level started coming back up and I gained confidence. There was a group of us exercising together but we were each given an individual goal to achieve. Jeff and Casey Blust would walk around looking at our heart rate and blood pressure, telling us to pick it up or bring it down. For me, it was always bring it down.
Some days we had the opportunity to hear about diet and nutrition. Another day, we received a handout about treadmills. I went online and did a lot of research before buying one of my own. I spent just enough to make me feel guilty if I didn't use it when the rehab program ended! The whole experience has been transformative for me. I attach each of my weekly progress charts to my original test results. I have lost 16 pounds and worked my way up from walking to running. I was able to work a full academic year and I'm convinced the reason is my use of the treadmill downstairs in my basement. I was always a fairly active person, but exercise and diet have become integral to my life in a way that they were not before. I cannot say enough about this last portion of my recovery.
The way I look at it now surgery, chemo and rehab all played an equal and necessary part in my recovery. I don't know what would have happened if I had been left the way I felt last May. They say you have to be your own advocate and ask questions but I also appreciate the providers at Dartmouth, Cheshire and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital who encouraged me to get help, as well as my friends and family for their support. I return to BMH and get my lungs scanned regularly. Everything has been clear so far and if cancer comes back I can feel like I've given it the best shot I possibly could.
Phyllis Benay is a Brattleboro resident and Director of the Center for Writing at Keene State College. Brattleboro Memorial Hospital now has a rehab program specifically for cancer survivors. It is called the STAR Program (Survivorship Training and Rehab). The STAR Program provides patients with comprehensive, coordinated cancer rehabilitation supported by a team of certified STAR Clinicians and Providers. For more information, call 802-257-8255.