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Ulster University has been working in partnership with South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust and leading on the evaluation of a newly launched, innovative pilot prehabilitation programme for cancer patients.

The ‘Cancer Prehabilitation Programme’ is an exercise, nutrition, emotional and wellbeing programme designed by a team of professionals and exercise experts based on latest research.

The programme is a partnership between the University and South Eastern Health & Social Care Trust, Lisburn City & Castlereagh Council, Newry Mourne & Down Council, Ards and North Down Council, Belfast City Council and Macmillan Cancer Support.

The evaluation of this pilot programme will be led by Dr Cherith Semple at Ulster University’s Institute of Nursing and Health alongside colleagues at the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust.

The aim of the programme is to help patients cope with cancer treatment and feel better, physically and emotionally. It is designed to help people take an active role in their cancer care and live as well as possible with and beyond cancer.  The programme also aims to:

  • Increase patients cardiovascular and skeletal muscle fitness prior to treatment
  • Provide holistic support by signposting to support services such as Stop Smoking and Substance Misuse Support
  • Optimise psychological and physiologically wellbeing (physical activity, nutritional status, emotional wellbeing and treatment-related functional impact) and lifestyle behaviours prior to treatment, throughout treatment and beyond

Part of the programme is delivered virtually or in leisure centres (when local government Covid-19 guidelines permit) across the South Eastern Health & Social Care Trust area for people to access at home or close to where they live.

The programme will include the following:

  • 1-1 support for patients from Move More coaches to help promote fitness in the few weeks between cancer diagnosis and the start of treatment
  • Nutritional assessment and advice
  • Emotional wellbeing support and onward psychological referral if needed
  • Support to return to exercising after cancer treatment
  • Person-centred approach, considering the needs of individuals

Current evidence indicates that the benefits of taking part in a prehabilitation programme includesbetter response to treatment, quicker recovery, fewer problems during treatment, reduced anxiety and improved mood along with increased energy levels.  This is an opportunity for patients to take an active part in their cancer care as it can also lower the chances of cancer recurrence.  It will also not only improve general fitness but will help with other health conditions as well.

Patients can also involve friends and family so they can also benefit from healthy lifestyle advice.  There will also be free access to local leisure facilities before and after treatment for an agreed period of time.

Commenting on the benefits of the programme, Health Minister Robin Swann stated:

“Cancer patients have undoubtedly been impacted over this past year by COVID-19, but as we rebuild services I am not only keen that we deliver the same services but committed to building back better cancer services with improved outcomes in Northern Ireland.

“Prehabilitation services have been shown to support faster recovery for patients, lessen post-operative complications and reduce length of stay in hospital. Additionally, by providing the patient with a goal to focus on in the days following their diagnosis and before treatment starts, this service can also improve patient wellbeing during what is known to be a very traumatic time. I would also like to thank all those involved in the Cancer Prehab programme in delivering this innovative approach.”

Dr Cherith Semple, Reader in Clinical Cancer Nursing, Ulster University/South Eastern HSC Trust said:

"This pilot partnership project utilises the latest emerging prehabilitation evidence and we are delighted to be able to provide a tailored programme for colorectal, lung and head and neck cancer patients within our Trust area.  This programme promotes a person-centred approach, optimising both physical and emotional wellbeing before treatment and is an important component of the pre-treatment pathway for cancer patients."

Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey added:

“I’m delighted to commend the work of the Cancer Prehab service as an exemplar of Community Planning, with Councils and Health Trusts working closely together to improve outcomes for local citizens diagnosed with Cancer.  Building enhanced relationships between central and local government, other public bodies and community organisations is vital to Community Planning. The Cancer Prehab service clearly demonstrates that innovative collaborative working in our public services can improve the quality of life for local communities.”

Janice Preston, Head of Partnerships for Macmillan in Northern Ireland said:

“A cancer diagnosis can be devastating, both physically and emotionally. We know that getting active and staying active can have a significant impact on the lives of people living with cancer and can make real difference to their quality of life, and improve their sense of wellbeing. We are delighted that the Macmillan Move More initiative is part of a such an innovative and holistic approach to cancer care.”The Cancer Prehabilitation Programme will develop and harness collaborative working across a range of partners from Consultants, Cancer Nurse Specialists, Allied Health Professionals, Local Councils, Northern Leisure Trust, GLL, Macmillan Move More Coordinators and Macmillan Cancer Support.

Patients who are eligible will have the intervention prescribed as part of their cancer treatment plan when they receive their diagnosis.

For more information on the programme, check out this video.