When Kathleen Rutter, 79, was diagnosed with lung cancer, it was a worrying time for her and her family. She spent time in hospital and lost weight, which meant she would have struggled to tolerate treatment.
She was referred to our pre-habilitation cancer team, which specifically supports vulnerable cancer patients to improve their health and wellbeing ahead of cancer surgery or treatment. After a diet and exercise plan, which included food supplements to help her gain weight, Kathleen, of Dagenham, was able to undergo immunotherapy treatment which has started to shrink her tumours.
She said: “They helped me pull myself together and I picked up quite well. They made me feel I was worth saving and it was worth fighting for.
“I was feeling really low before so it’s really nice that the team keep in touch with you and can help you with anything you need sorted. They keep track of you and there’s always someone to speak to. It’s a really good thing they’re doing.”
Kathleen, who has a son and daughter, was among the first patients to benefit from the service when it launched last summer. The team, which consists of a physiotherapist, dietician, and a specialist nurse, as well as support workers, has now helped over 60 cancer patients.
Dietician Rory Blanche said: “Cancer patients can lose their appetite or experience changes in taste, which may result in weight loss and affect their treatment and fitness for surgery.
“We want to avoid malnutrition and loss of muscle mass and there’s so much we can do such as prescribing supplements or fortifying meals and snacks with high protein ingredients. We often advise patients to eat little and often as more regular smaller meals can be less overwhelming for them.
“All our plans are tailored specifically to each patient’s needs and some can have quite luxurious diets, the opposite of what they expect – and often think I’m going to tell them off at first! We find they’re really grateful for our input.”
Physiotherapist Shruti Ghose looks at patients’ fitness, strength and balance, setting goals to help increase their activity levels. She said: “I suggest things patients will enjoy so they stick to it. This could be going for walks, swimming or a personalised home exercise plan. If they have a history of falls, we look at exercises to improve their balance, or whether they need a walking aid. Many patients are afraid of exercising when they have cancer, so I explain the benefits and how to do it safely.
“I can also teach patients strategies to help them manage symptoms, such as breathlessness and fatigue. Our service is something patients wouldn’t have had access to pre-treatment before, and they’re often surprised at the level of support we offer. The most important thing is it helps our patients to feel more in control, and gives them hope.”
Personalised cancer care specialist nurse Jenny Sweetman also supports patients’ mental wellbeing and can refer for psychological support.
The team, currently funded by the North East London Cancer Alliance, is working with patients who have lung, colorectal, or upper gastrointestinal tract cancers, though they hope to expand in the future. Pre-habilitation can have a hugely positive impact on patients, including reduced length of hospital stay, a better recovery after treatment, and improved quality of life.
Pictured above l-r are Jenny Sweetman, Rory Blanche, Shruti Ghose and support worker Rachael Lewis.