Vickie Hingston-Jones was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2020, shortly after COVID hit Australia.
Fortunately, her surgery and treatment were successful, but pandemic-induced isolation exacerbated a problem experienced by many cancer survivors – difficulty connecting with support services and reconnecting with life at large.
“I had a very active life before my diagnosis and now I was doing nothing; I was totally at a loss,” she says.
“I had finished treatment but still felt terrible and didn’t know what to do.”
That’s when Vickie signed up for the Cancer Council ACT’s ENRICHing Survivorship Program.
Since kicking off in October 2021, the free program has helped more than 50 Canberrans with professional advice to improve post-treatment physical and emotional wellbeing.
In weekly two-hour sessions over eight-week stints, local cancer survivors and their carers can get information on nutrition and exercise from an accredited dietician and exercise physiologist, as well as yoga and, importantly, peer support.
“People talked about what they did when they were stuck in this post-treatment vacuum. I took away ideas that I put into action immediately about how I was going to move forward in this new life I was living,” Vickie says.
“It was empowering to say, ‘Yeah, I’ve had cancer, I’m still here and I’m going to get on with my life and I’m going to do it in a certain way’.
“It was so good to be with people who look at each other and say ‘Yeah, we got it, we know what it’s like’.”
Cancer Council ACT CEO Verity Hawkins says as research and treatments have improved, people diagnosed with cancer have improved outcomes – but their fight doesn’t necessarily stop there.
“The fantastic news is more people are surviving cancer and living the remainder of their lives as a survivor. This has a lot of impacts on their lives; some physical, some emotional and some tied with their mental health,” she says.
“There is so much pressure on cancer patients to beat it and come through the other side. But once you’re through it, your life might be incredibly different. Your energy might’ve changed, your physiology might’ve changed, you might’ve had something removed or lost your hair.
“It’s really important that there are support networks for these people.”
Verity says support “undoubtedly” factors into recovery, but it helps if it’s geographically relevant.
“There’s a lot of research around the importance of community and how connection in life plays into our health and wellbeing,” she says.
“What’s more, the program in Canberra is facilitated by local oncology nurses and experts who all live here and know what’s available and the challenges specific to Canberra. They understand the variables that really matter to survivors here.
“We’re absolutely seeing positive outcomes from these programs.”
The ENRICHing Survivorship Program receives funding through the ACT Health Promotion Grants Program.
This will assist the Cancer Council ACT in providing three more sessions in the first half of 2023 and introducing an evening session in February to offer greater flexibility for cancer survivors with competing commitments.
ACT Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith says the ACT Government is “proud to partner with Cancer Council ACT to support cancer survivors to get the important physical and emotional wellbeing support they need to continue their recovery and improve their lives”.
“Cancer is a debilitating disease, and it’s important that those going through treatment are supported and know there are programs available to help,” she says.
The ENRICHing Survivorship Program is something all survivors struggling after treatment should consider, according to Vickie.
“Do it; you have absolutely nothing to lose,” she says.
“Knowing that there are other people that have had cancer that you haven’t met yet is powerful. Friendships will be made during these groups, so go!”
If you’ve completed cancer treatment and are wondering what happens next, register here for the February ENRICHing Survivorship Program.