Physical therapist Angelo Rizzo assists patient Consuella Holmes with massage and a compression bandage to treat lymphedema, a condition she developed after having her lymph nodes removed due to cancer.
CONYERS -- When cancer patients consider their treatment plans, physical therapy is usually not included in the list of services they deem necessary for recovery.
Angelo Rizzo, a physical therapist for 39 years, wants to change that perspective. Rizzo devotes the bulk of his practice, Therapeutic Solutions, to providing physical therapy to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
While physical therapy cannot cure cancer, it gives a person with the disease more energy, improved frame of mind and less pain, Rizzo said.
"Many of the (chemotherapy, radiation and surgery) treatments, the more aggressive treatments that are to prolong life, are leaving people with longer lives but more disabilities. It's those physical impairments that the cancer rehabilitation physical therapy can really make a difference with," Rizzo said.
Rizzo knows firsthand the debilitating results of fighting cancer. In April 1999, doctors diagnosed him with leukemia, and he underwent chemotherapy. He felt so much fatigue, he reduced his work day to two hours.
After three months in chemotherapy, he realized that he hadn't been exercising. He entered into a physical therapy program, which improved his sleeping patterns and anxiety level. He then found he could work four to six hours a day.
"I was convinced that this was something that was sorely needed in the oncology community. I said 'Lord, if you can get me through this, I will change the focus of my practice,'" Rizzo said.
Rizzo's cancer went into remission, and for the past 15 years he has worked to educate doctors and patients on the benefits of physical therapy to recovering cancer patients.
Rizzo said that even before he developed cancer, his involvement with the National Osteoporosis Foundation began to shed light on the need for physical therapy for cancer patients.
Women developed osteoporosis as a side effect from chemotherapy and radiation and came to see Rizzo for treatment.
"That's when I realized that they were a really underserved population that needed that intervention," Rizzo said.
Rizzo, whose business Therapeutic Solutions has three locations in metro Atlanta, including one in Conyers, said about 65 percent of his patients are cancer patients; the remainder are orthopedic and sports medicine.
The most commonly referred patients to his practice are those with breast cancer. Patients suffer from fatigue and mobility issues, which can set in when a woman undergoes a mastectomy.
Second on the list of referrals, said Rizzo, are those people with lymphedema, a swelling of the limbs that occurs when lymph nodes are removed. Breast cancer patients often develop the problem in their arms.
Retired Rockdale County Public School educator Erma Killings -- who had breast cancer, underwent a mastectomy and had lymph nodes removed -- had trouble lifting her arm up and behind her, preventing her from doing daily tasks like driving or putting items up in her cabinets.
Special massage techniques and a sleeve that Rizzo provided, as well as strengthening exercises, made a difference, and she is once again comfortable behind the wheel.
"I'm really so much better," Killings said.
Dr. Gayla Dillard, a surgeon specializing in breast cancer who works at Rockdale Medical Center, said she recommends physical therapy for her patients undergoing mastectomy and lymph node surgeries.
"I just think it's important to have all the range of motion," Dillard said.
Rizzo said patients used to balk at physical therapy because they lacked energy and couldn't see the logic in exerting more energy. Patients learn, Rizzo said, that physical therapy provides them with strength, endurance, mobility, flexibility, balance, better sleep and less stress.
"Although the physicians, the surgeons and the oncologists are specializing in extending life for cancer patients, I think we are best at adding life to those days," Rizzo said.
Being a cancer patient is a passive experience, as a person is administered chemotherapy drugs or radiation, said Rizzo. Physical therapy helps patients take an active role in their recovery.
"This is the first time they are participating in and gaining control of their lives again," he said.