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Brain tumour survivor returns to life and the things that matter most

Between large family gatherings and maintaining flower and vegetable gardens at home, Mrs. Francesca Tancredi has always been independent and on the go.

However, her active lifestyle came to an abrupt stop when doctors discovered a tumour on the left side of her brain. In March 2010, Mrs. Tancredi had surgery at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Although the tumour was successfully removed, the surgery left Mrs. Tancredi severely weak. Everyday tasks that used to come easily to her were difficult. She realized that her biggest challenge had only just begun.

"I couldn't move the right side of my body. I thought I would never walk again," she says.

Despite her condition, Mrs. Tancredi was determined to be independent again. A few weeks after surgery, she was transferred to the unique oncology rehabilitation program at St. John's Rehab in Toronto. Developed through a partnership between Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and St. John's Rehab, the program involves intensive, inpatient rehab treatment that ensures patients can transition smoothly from acute care to rehabilitation.

Historically, cancer survivors were sent home immediately after their acute care. This left them with little support to cope with the physical and emotional issues resulting from cancer treatment, including the changes to their bodies, and feelings of fear, despair or anxiety. At St. John's Rehab, patients who have undergone or are planning for cancer surgery or cancer treatment work with a team of expert rehabilitation professionals to develop a customized treatment plan. Active, specialized rehab care is a key to rebuilding strength, endurance and hope to maximize people's independence so that they can start rebuilding their lives.

"In the past, cancer care only involved chemotherapy, radiation and surgery," says Barb Daly, RN, Team Coordinator of the oncology program at St. John's Rehab. "Now, we can build up patients' endurance so they can get back to doing the things they want to do with an enhanced quality of life."

For patients like Mrs. Tancredi, St. John's Rehab focuses on the whole person - body, mind and spirit - to ensure maximum recovery. Individually customized treatment includes physiotherapy, occupational therapy, physiatry, social work, nursing care, speech-language pathology, nutrition, psychology, pharmacy and pastoral care.

Although Mrs. Tancredi's mobility was extremely low when she began her rehab, with the help of her highly skilled clinical team she was soon able to stand using a walker and a cane. In only three weeks, she took her first unassisted step. The determined 78-year-old grandmother of four never lost hope, but was surprised by her quick recovery.

"I can't believe I'm already walking again," she says.

Cancer Care Ontario (CCO) reports that there were an estimated 62,700 new cancer cases in 2007 - 1,600 more than the previous year. It is expected that the number of new cases will increase by two-thirds by 2020.

"The need for oncology support is growing in our community," says Mila Bishev, Patient Services Manager for oncology and neurology rehab. "And the program at St. John's Rehab is growing in response to this need."

Since the commencement of its pilot phase in late 2005, the number of patients admitted to the oncology rehabilitation program at St. John's Rehab has steadily increased. In its first year, approximately 20 patients went through the program. As of March 2010, nearly 300 patients have successfully completed their oncology rehabilitation at St. John's Rehab.

Often when patients arrive for rehabilitation, they focus on their illness. However, staff at St. John's Rehab encourage patients to concentrate on rebuilding their lives by directing them to resources including the Canadian Cancer Society and Wellspring, a network of cancer support centres providing education and coping skills. In addition, St. John's Rehab is currently working on establishing a support group to help patients, families and staff deal with the effects of cancer.

Due to the dedicated care she received at St. John's Rehab and her strong faith, Mrs. Tancredi has maintained a positive outlook throughout her rehabilitation process. At one time, she wondered if she would ever regain her independence. Now, she looks forward to getting back to family visits, gardening and her parish.

On the day Mrs. Tancredi began therapy at St. John's Rehab, her surgeon presented her with a unique challenge: "He told me that he wanted to see me walking the next time we met," she says.

Soon, she will be able to do just that.