Ideally, you don’t get sick, but let’s say that you do. Ideally, you go to the doctor or check in to a hospital. You stay for a while. You leave and ideally, by the time you walk out the door, you are healed. A brand new you. Unfortunately, patients who have gone through cancer or other chronic disease treatments still have residual aches, challenges, and needs when they step back into their lives.
Working at an oncology clinic as a nurse, Alene Nitzky heard the voices of patients who felt unprepared for the steps ahead. She knew, for the cancer survivors, the healing process was not over, even though the stay at the facility was. “There wasn’t enough time to get questions answered. There was anxiety of what would happen after,” said Alene, “If they just had chemo, when their hair grew back, people expected them to jump back into their lives but nothing could be different from the reality. They were tired, relationships changed, they might have had to leave their job. Coming back to work was always difficult.”
Now, doctors give patients survivorship care plans, which outline a series of follow up screenings depending on the treatment and cancer. They encourage exercise, healthy eating, and other general lifestyle guidelines but there is no support for everyday challenges between those checkups, leaving patients wondering: When will I feel better? Will I ever? “Once you go through the treatment, the fight is not over. The battle continues,” says Donna, a cancer survivor who worked closely with Alene for six months.
Donna had cancer treatment in 2013 and in 2014 she thought she would be better, but she spent the year feeling as though she was spiraling in pain. Enter Alene Nitzky, Ph.D., RN, OCN. Donna found Alene’s information in an ad but spoke of her like a long time friend or family member. “She would assist me, kind of like a coach, kind of like a cheerleader.” Before Donna received a hip replacement, Alene helped work through exercises that would benefit her following the operation. Donna would receive an email or text when she was struggling, with guidance in the form of support or documents to read in reference to what she was experiencing and how to get past it. Alene was ready at a moment’s notice, still remaining professional.
After communicating with patients following cancer treatments, Alene noticed patterns. “I made a list and it came out to over eighty concerns that I had heard over and over again and so I broke those down into categories and I began to write.” Alene’s answers addressed common topics such as:
- How to manage fatigue
- How to restructure your day so you don’t exhaust yourself
- Mental exercises you can do to talk yourself through anxiety
- Ways to reach out to the correct professional to help you with your problem
Cancer Harbors was born with the understanding that everyone has their own set of needs, and a goal to confront these topics in a personalized way, including mini lessons available online as downloadable and image enhanced content that is accessible worldwide. Aside from direct answers given with solid evidence based information, Cancer Harbors also includes opportunities to participate in discussion forums and personal video conferencing sessions with Alene during different times of the day to accommodate different schedules.
For those located in the Fort Collins, Colorado location, Alene hosts a fitness and support group classes known as FIERCE in the Raintree Athletic Club the first and third Wednesday of every month. On top of her experience as a healthcare professional, Alene is a certified ACSM cancer exercise trainer with extensive experience as a fitness trainer for those who have gone through chronic health conditions. “The class is focused on recovering functions and confidence in your body and its ability to move,” explains Alene. The included exercises are those that can be done at home without any equipment, focusing in on posture, core strength, aerobic walking, and work for the cardiovascular system.” Because this is just as much a support system as a fitness course, speakers and experts of movement and mind-body techniques such as yoga join sessions and present different strategies. Through Cancer Harbors, Alene plans on incorporating a FIERCE class by conference so that people who do not live in Fort Collins can still participate.
Understanding the options and the outcomes following cancer treatment is not strictly a priority for patients who have experienced it themselves. It is for everyone who knows someone who has been through it, everyone who does not but might one day, which is to say: everyone. “It would help people cope if there was more understanding,” says Alene. “There is so much fear around it, which is justified, but the whole process could be a lot easier if the public and professionals understood more and were able to empathize. They have a long way to go and I’m hoping I’ll be able to provide resources.”