Side-by-Side Through Cancer Care
Written by Rebecca Budde • Photography by Jason Johnson
An intimate group is gathered in the large room on the third floor of Simmons Cancer Institute at SIU (SCI). They seem like long-time friends, chatting about upcoming vacations or their children. Most of them didn’t know each other prior to meeting at SCI, but they now share a bond as they fight cancer together in the sessions offered through Side-by-Side.
Loretta Johnson and her husband, Loren, of Springfield are two of the regulars who have experienced the program’s benefits. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, Loretta began with the yoga classes. Her involvement improved her physical and emotional health. "After I started doing yoga, I regained a lot of the mobility I had lost in my arm and shoulder," Loretta says. She has continued taking yoga and has recently added Pilates and qi gong to her weekly schedule at SCI.
The caregivers face an abundance of emotions, added responsibilities and stress. They are encouraged to attend the Side-by-Side programs to help them handle the changes that occur from the shift in their lifestyles. Though Loretta has been attending Side-by-Side classes for a number of years, Loren only began attending classes with Loretta about a year-and-a-half ago. "Loretta has noticed that the yoga is really helping with my posture," Loren says. "As we get older, we have to be more cognizant of what we’re doing with our bodies so that we can enjoy our time."
"It’s helped our quality time together," Loretta says. In the qi gong class, participants work together on certain movements. Loretta says that she sometimes needs Loren’s help to talk her through the movements since her short-term memory hasn’t fully recovered from the side effects of chemotherapy.
Early in her cancer treatment, Loretta had difficulty sleeping due to certain medications. The evening after she tried Reiki, she slept through the night and continued to sleep for consecutive nights. Yoga has also allowed her to learn how to relax in stressful situations. "Side-by-Side has helped in all aspects of my life," Loretta says.
"It is a treasure," agrees Loren. "SCI has so much for so many people."
Chemotherapy, radiation and other medications used to treat cancer take a toll on the physical and emotional sides of a person and their loved ones. Each cancer journey is unique. Embracing a belief in treating the whole person, providers at SCI began the Side-by-Side program to advance beyond treating the patient through medication and surgery alone.
Programs range from yoga and Pilates to drumming and tai chi. "Other types of therapies, such as yoga and music, are all proven entities that provide patients with a better outcome," says Meghna Desai, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine.
Side-by-Side programs are free to all cancer patients, cancer survivors and their caregivers, regardless of where they are receiving treatment. Side-by-Side provides patients with the physical and emotional support they need to help them fight cancer, healing and strengthening their minds and bodies.
"We have a lot of regulars who attend," says Kristi Lessen, SCI’s outreach coordinator. Lessen has gotten to know some of the participants on a more personal level and says she notices the benefits that the classes have on those who attend. "The classes really help patients have more energy and strength; they learn to relax and learn important coping skills for facing cancer."
The instructors of the Side-by-Side programs meet the participants at their level, modifying programs to meet any physical limitations they might have. "The adapted yoga class is specifically designed for those with limitations," says yoga therapist Carol Dunaway. Participants may sit in chairs or wheelchairs. The class uses modified positions, breathing techniques, guided relaxation and meditation to safely and effectively increase strength and mobility while teaching participants how to focus, relax and even improve their moods. "These are tools that cancer survivors can use on a daily basis, whether going to a doctor’s appointment or having a procedure such as an MRI," Dunaway says.
"When I first came to SCI, I was in a wheelchair," says John Demons, who began taking the adapted yoga class a year ago. Demon says that after spending a lot of time in the hospital due to a brain tumor, his muscles were tight and his balance was poor. "I’ve moved up to regular yoga now. There are some exercises I can’t do, but we adapt to it until I can get to that point." John is now out of the wheelchair, walking on his own.