“I was afraid that was the best I was ever going to be – using a cane or pushing a walker – and that devastated me.”
While undergoing chemotherapy at Terrebonne General | Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Barbara Toups noticed tingling in her feet that she described as the feeling of ant bites. After the tingling sensation wore off, her feet just became numb.
She was diagnosed with chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) – a common side effect associated with the treatment. CIPN affects sensory and motor nerves, causing weakness, tingling and numbness in the hands and feet, along with disruptions in balance.
Barbara said after being elated to finish chemotherapy, she found herself depressed with her new symptoms and challenges. Because of the difficulty walking and balancing, she had several falls. She wasn’t able to be as active as she was previously or even pick up and hold her great-grandchildren.
“I realized how much I was physically affected by everything my body was put through,” she says. “I lost a lot of independence and felt so limited.”
Jessica Kovar, a physical therapist with Terrebonne General | Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, has seen CIPN diagnosed more often in recent years as awareness for the condition has increased. With the right therapy plan, she says patients typically recover with good outcomes. She encourages patients to advocate for themselves and talk with their doctor about any symptoms.
“Therapy works,” she says. “The sooner we can address the issues, the better the results will be. And it does get better.”
Jessica guided Barbara through eight weeks of physical therapy. Barbara expressed how helpful Jessica was from thoroughly explaining how her therapy program would help and working closely with her through each session. “When I started, I couldn’t even step up the curb,” she says. “After the second week, I didn’t need to walk with a cane anymore. That gave me the drive to keep going,”
Along with in-person sessions, patients get a home therapy program to follow. Because every case is unique, each patient’s therapy plan is customized to their situation and guided by what they hope to achieve.
“It’s all about improving their quality of life,” Jessica says. “We ask the patient what they were doing before chemotherapy and find out their physical goals. The treatment plan is focused around building strength and getting them back to doing the activities they enjoy.”
Barbara hasn’t needed a cane to walk since her first sessions, and she feels fortunate that she had the opportunity to complete therapy close to home. “Terrebonne General and Mary Bird Perkins changed my life,” she says. “Physical therapy got me back on track and gave me the ability to be independent again.”
Although there is no known way to avoid CIPN, Jessica also recommends that patients take a few steps to reduce risk factors before starting chemotherapy treatment. Regular exercise, reducing alcohol intake and treating any vitamin deficiencies are key to keeping the body healthy.
“Not everyone will experience it, but it’s a possible side effect of chemotherapy,” she says. “It’s really important to keep your immune system as strong as possible.”
Barbara still completes her exercises at home and is getting back to the things she loves to do. She is able to enjoy her outdoor activities like gardening and birdwatching. She also enjoys picking up her great-grandchildren every chance she gets.