According to Angelo Rizzo, cancer treatment should be about adding life to one’s days, as well as adding days to one’s life.
Eddy Davis agrees.
Although the two have never met — Rizzo lives in Atlanta and Davis in Austin, Texas — they both attribute their health to appropriate exercise during and after treatment.
Rizzo had already transitioned his physical therapy business from its emphasis on orthopedic and sports injuries to working with cancer patients when he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 1999.
“I realized during my work with the National Osteoporosis Foundation that many cancer patients develop osteoporosis from chemotherapy and radiation,” Rizzo says.
“No one was addressing this or other treatment side effects that physical therapists know how to deal with, such as severe fatigue, numbness, lymphedema, weakness, difficulty sleeping, depression, anxiety and more,” he says. “Many symptoms can be effectively managed and treated with proper exercise, oncology physical therapy intervention and guidance in making needed lifestyle changes.”
To practice what you preach
It wasn’t until the third month of Rizzo’s own treatment — his first clinical trial at MD Anderson under the care of Hagop Kantarjian, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Leukemia — that his extreme fatigue finally got his attention and made him realize he wasn’t exercising at all.
“I wasn’t practicing what I preach,” he says. “While we were waiting to find a donor for a bone marrow transplant, I was on a triple chemotherapy regimen that was debilitating. I continued to work and run my practice, but a two-hour work day was a good day for me. Fortunately, a new clinical trial offered a more promising drug that had just come out — Gleevec. Within six months, I went from partial remission to complete remission, and my quality of life escalated,” he says.
As a 14-year cancer survivor, Rizzo empathizes with his patients when they say they don’t want to do anything. It took him a while, but when he started the exercise program, he realized its impact on his quality of life.
“I was determined that if I got through this treatment, I needed to educate the medical community and other survivors,” he says. “It was the true start of my oncology rehab mission.”
Golf professional on the rebounder
Eddy Davis calls himself the “resident artist” at the Jimmy Clay-Roy Kizer Municipal Golf Courses in Austin.
Originally diagnosed with non-Hodgkin B-cell lymphoma in 2003, the golf pro came to MD Anderson in June 2009, having exhausted his treatment options in Austin. About the same time, he got the shingles. That’s when the rebounder came into his life.
“I was too consumed with working and paying bills,” he says. “My wife, Aimee, was the proactive one. She found a soft-bounce rebounder [jumping mat] online. I looked at it, read about it and decided it made perfect sense.”
Davis bounced through the pain of shingles, and the rebounder accompanied him to MD Anderson and through high-dose chemotherapy.
“But the chemotherapy was wearing me out,” he says. “You come to the point when you don’t even have the energy to walk around the neighborhood. So I made myself get off the couch and use the rebounder two minutes every hour to move my lymphatic system.”
When the chemotherapy failed him in 2010, he was told a stem cell transplant was his only chance of survival. Under the care of Borje Andersson, M.D., Ph.D., professor in MD Anderson’s Department of Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy, he prepared for an autologous (using his own blood cells) transplant.
“I stayed on the rebounder through the entire stem cell process,” he says. “I’d be bouncing when the nurses came in and they’d say, ‘What’re you doing? Are you approved to do that?’”
He assured them that he wasn’t going to do any back flips, and he was quick to explain that the soft-bounce equipment would not cause stress in his joints or knee problems.
“This was the one constant when I went through treatments,” he says. “I could see that if I had the rebounder with me, I could stay in relatively good shape. All my numbers stayed good. And after the transplant, when I went into isolation — even though I was throwing up and losing my hair — I always got on the rebounder. I would sometimes crawl onto the thing when I couldn’t walk, but that was enough for me.”
Rizzo says that, while few practices focus specifically on using physical therapy to combat the symptoms of cancer treatment, the need for this service is becoming increasingly recognized among physicians and patients.
He recommends that cancer survivors be more proactive, asking their doctors to refer them to oncology physical therapists at the earliest sign of side effects, when they can be more easily managed or eliminated.
Today, 65% of referrals to his Atlanta business, Therapeutic Solutions, are oncology-based, from breast cancer surgeons, as well as medical and radiation oncologists.
“Physical therapy helps heal the mind, body and soul at the functional level,” he says. “My patients see the benefits of having trained professionals coach them through every step of their recovery as they work to restore normalcy to the many roles they play in their lives.”