Cancer warrior Susan LaVigne aimed high with her bucket list this year—as high as the thundering falls of Yellowstone National Park.
A longtime hiker, she yearned to explore the mountainous park on foot. Unfortunately, her battle with cancer had left her so weak she could barely trudge a half-mile without stopping to rest.
As she prepared for the rigorous trip, LaVigne found guidance from a cancer rehabilitation program designed specifically for cancer survivors.
Therapists from Spectrum Health Cancer Center at Gerber Memorial, who are trained in the national post-cancer rehab program, helped LaVigne build strength to the point where she could hike six to nine miles.
The transformation “was just amazing,” she said.
And so was Yellowstone, with its lush forests, flowing rivers and turquoise and golden hot springs.
“It was beautiful,” she said.
Fighting for time
LaVigne, a 66-year-old former research scientist for Gerber Products, began her cancer journey in 2007.
She went to the hospital one day thinking she had food poisoning.
She came home with a grim prognosis: She had stage 4 cancer in her pancreas, stomach, liver, lungs, kidneys, colon and throughout her abdominal cavity.
Although officially diagnosed as breast cancer, no cancer was found in her breasts, ovaries or uterus.
“That is not common,” she said. “Less than 1 percent of all breast cancers ever recorded have developed that way.”
She was advised to avoid treatment and get her affairs in order, but LaVigne insisted on fighting. She demanded the “strongest chemo” she could get.
She has continued fighting—and surviving—for eight years, with help from medical treatments and prayer.
Through the uncertainties and challenges of diagnosis and treatment, she drew strength from a “recognition that each day is a gift no matter the circumstance and the choice is mine what to do with it.”
Before the cancer diagnosis, LaVigne was an avid hiker. Ask her where she has hiked, and she will rattle off a list of mountain landmarks—the Rockies, the Superstitions, the Sierra Nevadas. She led nine trips through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for the Sierra Club.
Yellowstone, the first national park in the United States, was long on her wish list, but the fight for survival sidetracked her hiking goals.
Tests showed the cancer had spread to her bones.
“I thought, ‘Yellowstone–I got to do it now,’” she said. “It’s not going to get better. I’m only going to get worse.”
At the suggestion of Spectrum Health Cancer Center at Gerber Memorial staff, she signed up for the rehabilitation program in April for help getting in shape. She worked with therapists at Tamarac, the Center for Health and Well-Being in Fremont, Michigan.
She discovered the neuropathy she suffered—which causes a burning sensation and loss of control in her feet—had led to a cascade of problems with the way she walked.
“I started to always watch where my feet would be landing,” she said. “I developed a dropped chin, hunched back and unsteady balance. All these silent changes left me with more back pain, poor muscle control and a shortened gait.”
The physical therapists taught her exercises that improved her posture and cardiovascular endurance. They worked on balance, too.
“I didn’t want to fall off a cliff,” LaVigne said.
At the beginning of the program, she could not stand on one foot without toppling. Two months later, she could hold that pose for a full minute.
This doesn’t have to be ‘the new normal’
The oncology rehab program tailors goals to each patient, said Beth VanTreese, a physical therapist and director of rehabilitation services at Gerber Memorial. Some work on their range of motion, so they can swing a golf club again. Others take baby steps in a warm pool, gradually building strength so they can accomplish simple daily activities without pain.
Some patients receive therapy while undergoing chemo or radiation. Others seek help years after finishing treatment.
Rehab for cancer patients “is a relatively new area of focus,” VanTreese said. And it encompasses more than physical therapy. One hundred Spectrum Health clinicians—including occupational and speech therapists, nurses and dietitians—have been certified in the rehabilitation program.
The program aims to educate cancer survivors about the changes to their bodies—and ways to regain function and manage the fatigue, neuropathy and pain, VanTreese said.
“What they are going through doesn’t have to be the new normal,” she said. “They can get back to their daily activities—or their bucket list.”
Waterfalls and grizzlies
LaVigne worked with the rehabilitation program for two months in the spring.
In September, she and her significant other, Chuck Rockcole, drove to Wyoming for a group tour of Yellowstone guided by Road Scholar, the program formerly known as Elderhostel.
On this bucket-list trip, the bucket overflowed with memorable moments.
She hiked up rocky stream beds and steep switchbacks. She climbed to the top of Yellowstone River waterfalls. She saw buffalo, wolves and trumpeter swans and even spied on a grizzly bear digging a den (from a safe distance, with binoculars).
And in the park known for its gushing geysers, LaVigne marveled as steam rose from vents in the ground.
“It gives you a whole new perspective about planet Earth,” she said. “It makes it very much alive. It is like the Earth is breathing.”
And throughout the trip, LaVigne had all the balance and stamina she needed—with a little help from walking sticks.
“I was just completely happy I kept up with the group,” she said.
Up next: camping in Michigan
The rehab work has paid off in other areas of life, such as keeping up with the four children and 10 grandchildren she and Rockcole share.
Before therapy, she struggled to carry her infant granddaughter, Ella, across the room. Post-therapy, she can easily pick up Ella, now 2, in one arm and baby sister Evelyn in the other.
Next summer, she plans to spend a lot of time camping in Michigan.
LaVigne advises other cancer survivors to consider rehab to address the ways illness and treatments wreak havoc with balance, stamina and range of motion.
“Just having an evaluation is the first step to making a lot of that feel better,” she said. “They don’t even have to go to the extremes I did—and worry about falling off a cliff.”