With the launch of the Women’s Wellness podcast, we spoke to Professor Sandie McCarthy from the University of Queensland about the Women’s Wellness after Cancer Program; its origins, its purpose and how lifestyle interventions can improve post-treatment experiences.
Why do we need a program for Women’s Wellness after Cancer?
The catalyst for the Women’s Wellness after Cancer program happened when I was working as a chemotherapy nurse many years ago. I would provide care for women over an intensive period of time and then never see them again and would often wonder what happened to these women after their cancer treatment. One day I ran into a lady I had helped treat and she looked really unwell. I asked how she was doing and she said that while the cancer was gone, she was left with heart failure. And this was many years before we fully understood the many side effects cancer treatments have.
So from that moment on, I started researching what happened to these women and was quite devastated as a clinician as to the after effects, and long term side effects, of the treatments that I had been administering. In those days these weren’t really well recognised – they are now.
Today we also understand that if we implement certain lifestyle changes, both during and after treatment, we can often prevent those side effects from happening or moderate their effects. And this was ultimately the impetus for the development of the Women’s Wellness after Cancer Program.
What sort of lifestyle modifications can women put in place if they are undergoing cancer treatment or completed treatment?
There’s a raft of different lifestyle changes and modifications women can make after cancer treatment but what ultimately underpins success for women’s wellness is good psycho-social support. We’ve got to wrap these women in a support blanket, because essentially when they’ve left cancer treatment, they’re left to recover on their own – they are considered well. Many women don’t know what lifestyle changes or strategies to use to change their treatment outcomes and post treatment experience.
What we’re really focused on with the Women’s Wellness after Cancer Program is quality of life and function for these women, and how lifestyle modifications can enhance that. This includes things like lots of movement, minimising alcohol wherever possible, eating a really healthy diet, getting enough sleep, minimising the effects of early onset menopause that is brought on by many breast and gynecological cancer treatments and minimising psycho-social distress.
So what can women expect from the Women’s Wellness after Cancer Program?
The Women’s Wellness after Cancer Program is a 12-week, very supportive, lifestyle management intervention program, where we give a lot of clinical and psycho-social support to women. Throughout the 12-weeks we guide them through the lifestyle changes that they need to make in a very evidence-based way. So things like, what’s the best way to get your body moving, particularly when you’ve got pain or neuropathy; what’s the best diet to have – women who have undergone breast cancer treatment, for example, often come out of the treatment weighing a lot more than when they went in due to the nature of the drugs, so we support women to lose weight in the best and safest way. We also help women work through how best to manage the hot flushes and the sleeplessness that is a result of treatment-induced menopause and how to manage lymphedema, which is the swelling of limbs that can occur after some surgeries.
These are just some of the ways we support women during the 12-week program and we’ve had a great deal of success with the program. Since then, we’ve moved onto younger women with the Younger Women’s Wellness after Cancer Program because they have very specific issues around sexual function, fertility, social support and how to bring up young children in the context of this condition, for example.
What’s next for Women’s Wellness?
We’ve expanded the Younger Women’s Wellness after Cancer Program into New Zealand and Hong Kong and next year we’ll be developing a whole new program with Canteen for younger women and young men between the ages of 15 and 24. We’re developing a lifestyle intervention for them, which will be totally delivered by telehealth and designed by the participants – they’ve even designed the logos for the program.
We’ll also be moving into addressing issues like body image in our Programs, because a lot of cancer surgeries, chemotherapy and radiotherapy result in a lot of bodily alteration that can be quite difficult to deal with, from the removal of breasts, lymphedema and stomas on the outside of your stomach rather than normal bowel function, for example. So we’re considering how to support women to develop a ‘normal’ lifestyle in the context of bodily alterations that come as a result of cancer treatments.
For more information about the Women’s Wellness after Cancer Program and other wellness programs, visit www.dawncomplete.org.au