Research supported by the University of Ulster is helping cancer survivors cope with chronic tirednesswhich is often a side-effect of their treatment.
“Back on Track”, an eight-week tailored exercise-based programme devised by researchers at Ulster and external health professionals, has proven “highly effective” in a pilot study funded by the University of Ulster Innovation Fund.
Cancer-related fatigue is recognised as one of the most distressing and persistent factors linked to the symptoms or treatment of cancer. Despite its prevalence, however, researchers say fatigue is under-reported, under diagnosed and under treated.
Cancer-survivor Brian Coburn, from Banbridge, Co Down, who is a firm believer in the programme, says: “Cancer fatigue is very common and it’s very hard to get over. It leaves you very listless and with no energy. You can’t even get out of the chair, you just look at the wall. The thing is, if you do drag yourself out and get into the fresh air and do a bit of walking, it’s amazing how your mood changes.
“Back on Track is about getting people out to do some exercise and giving them a wee bit of discipline to do it. It gives people a great boost because it motivates them to do something for themselves. I found that the most stimulating thing.”
Dr Gracey and Mr Coburn were speaking as about 30 allied health practitioners, mainly physiotherapists, gathered at the Jordanstown campus for a three-day course on Cancer Rehabilitation and Survivorship highlighting the importance of physical activity in cancer recuperation and rehabilitation. Participants travelled from as far away as Perth, Australia and Norway.
“We’ve had very positive feedback also from physiotherapists in other parts of the UK and we‘re hoping that it will be introduced as standard cancer rehabilitation,” says Dr Jackie Gracey of the School of Health Sciences at Ulster.
The attendance at the Jordandstown course this week brings to about 70, the number of physiotherapists and other health professionals who have studied theexercise, and lifestyle in rehabilitation and cancer survivorship Masters' level module.Over the past eight years, the School of Health Science has undertaken significant research in exercise and fatigue management. Back on Track puts into practice much of that research.
The Back on Track pilot study was conducted at the Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Research Institute and the participants were recruited through the Ulster Cancer Foundation.
Five leading healthcare professionals have collaborated in the management and delivery of the Back on Track programme. In addition to Dr Gracey, they are Professor Max Watson (Northern Ireland Hospice), Dr Lynn Dunwoody ( Lecturer in Health Psychology); Cathy Payne (Doctoral Fellow in Palliative Care), Jane Rankin-Watt, Lead Cancer Physiotherapist for the Cancer Centre, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust.
Brian Coburn, who has myeloma, which affects bone marrow, has provided valuable insights to physiotherapy researchers at Ulster. He is a member of the Northern Ireland Cancer Research Consumers’ Forum.
He said: “Exercise is a key part of Back on Track. You are given a pedometer for your walking exercise and there is also very light weight-lifting. But there are also one-to-one chats with doctors and physios and dietitians. This helps people to understand their disease, and where they are, and that is very good.
“There is an urgent need for funding to get the service up and running as a standard practice. There are more people getting cancer now but, at the same time, there are more people surviving it and that means there’s more rehabilitation required.
"My view is that the pilot programme clearlydemonstrates the benefits that can be obtained from enabling and helping cancer sufferers to introduce gentle exercise as part of their rehabilitation and, dare I say it, potential survival chances.Moreover, I believe a little exercise can significantly enhance the quality of life of cancer sufferers at minimal cost to the NHS.
"However, cancer patients, without doubt, need help not only to be informed of the benefits of exercise but also to be supported and encouraged to enable them to put the theory into practice.
"Therefore, the funding needed to help dedicated and professional staff to continue with programmes such as Back on Track is vital to helping thousands of cancer patients help themselves. As one would say, it is a ‘no-brainer’.”