Dave Gayeski started running for fitness in his mid-40s, hoping to outpace the heart disease that seemed to run in his family. He completed his first half-marathon at age 50, but soon after, it was cancer that threatened to stop him at the starting line.
After treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer, Gayeski had trouble balancing and walking because of significant nerve damage to his left foot. His doctor cautioned that he might never run again, but a cancer-focused therapy program at Specialty Rehabilitation, Inc. (SRI) soon got him back in the race. SRI provides personalized cancer rehabilitation services at ChristianaCare’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute.
“At first, I couldn’t trust my feet and legs to keep me upright,” Gayeski said. He teamed with physical therapist Erin Helm, Ph.D., DPT, director of Oncology Rehabilitation, and together they set out to get him back in the race.
“Our therapists are focused on helping cancer patients manage their symptoms and regain their abilities,” Helm said. “We offer evidenced-based physical and occupational rehabilitation programs specifically designed to meet the unique needs and goals of each individual cancer patient.”
“I learned that Erin is also runner, so she understood my motivation,” Gayeski said. “One of my goals was to run races again, and Erin designed a program to help me get there.”
During a six-month targeted program of exercise and strength training, Gayeski regained significant mobility and improved his balance to the point where he could jog on the treadmill again.
“On nice days, Erin and I ran laps together around the parking lot,” Gayeski recalled. In the fall of 2015, the two teamed up to run a 5K fundraiser for the Delaware School for the Deaf in Newark, Delaware.
But the story doesn’t end there.
The next year, Gayeski’s cancer returned, threatening to sideline him for good. Further treatment led to an autologous transplant of his own blood-forming stem cells in February 2017.
By April, Gayeski was feeling better and anxious to get back in the race. Once again, he returned to SRI for rehabilitation and fitness training.
“Most patients at every stage of cancer can benefit from cancer rehabilitation in some way,” said occupational therapist Lisa Marshall, OTR-L. “Our goal is to help patients gain control of their lives at a time when cancer treatment takes that control away.”
The therapists are specially trained in cancer rehabilitation and work as partners with the members of each patient’s multidisciplinary cancer care team at the Graham Cancer Center. The team of certified cancer therapists supports patients throughout their cancer journey. Services may begin even before cancer treatment with “prehabilitation” programs and then continue on through treatment and beyond with rehabilitation and palliation.
The team offers specialized rehabilitation for every type of cancer as well as targeted programs to address cancer fatigue and generalized weakness, stress management, treatment side effects including chemotherapy-induced neuropathy and post-surgical limitations. For women undergoing breast cancer surgery, the group’s 14 certified lymphedema therapists offer scar management and training to reduce the risks and symptoms of lymphedema.
“Most patients at every stage of cancer can benefit from cancer rehabilitation in some way. Our goal is to help patients gain control of their lives at a time when cancer treatment takes that control away.”
Lisa Marshall, OTR-L
An evidence-based neuro-oncology program offers multilevel screening, intervention and rehabilitation for both cognitive and physical deficits in people with tumors of the brain or spine. They also offer support and training for the caregivers of patients living with cancer.
The therapists, located on the fourth floor of the Graham Cancer Center, treat patients in five private rooms and an open gym overlooking the back garden and reflecting pool. The environment is sensitive to needs of patients whose immune systems may be weakened from their cancer treatment.
“Everyone is treated with special care, and I see other patients in the gym who routinely meet their personal fitness goals,” Gayeski said. “As my primary therapist, Erin is terrific and literally willing to go the extra mile with me to accomplish my goals. I couldn’t have come this far without her.”
After his stem cell transplant, it took another half-year of rehab to get Gayeski back to running races, but by 2018, his training and persistence really paid off. He ran the Philadelphia Broad Street 10-Mile run, the largest in the United States, and followed up with the second largest race in October, completing the Army 10-Miler that stretches from Arlington, Virginia, into Washington, D.C.
“I see my therapists as life-long partners in my fitness journey,” Gayeski said. “The depth of their expertise in cancer rehabilitation really shows, and the care and support they give me are phenomenal. I am really fortunate to have found this place just 10 minutes from home.”