Hollings rolls out tailored physical therapy program for cancer patients, survivors

March 04, 2022
Susan Bryant Thomas reads while practicing balance during physical therapy at Hollings. Photo by Josh Birch
Susan Bryant Thomas (left) reads while practicing balance during physical therapy with Katie Schmitt (right) at Hollings. Photos by Josh Birch

To be, or not to be. That’s the question for Susan Bryant Thomas, 65, as she stands on one foot reciting a popular Shakespeare soliloquy. She’s working on her balance with MUSC Hollings Cancer Center physical therapist Katie Schmitt, DPT. It’s not a conventional way to do physical therapy, but it’s the perfect one for Thomas, a multiple myeloma patient at Hollings.

“I happened to mention one day that I liked Shakespeare and so does Katie,” Thomas said. “After that, she started to give me at-home exercises and told me to pick out a soliloquy and practice reciting it on one foot to work on my balance. It’s one way she makes the whole experience fun.”

Thomas was diagnosed with multiple myeloma at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in April 2019 while living in California. The South Carolina native had chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant in California before relocating to South Carolina in August 2020.

“When I decided to move back to South Carolina, I knew that I was going to transfer my care to Hollings. Having an easy transition in care from California to Hollings was important to me. I called and got appointments set up with no problem.”

Thomas continued her care with Hamza Hashmi, M.D., a Hollings hematologic oncologist. Hashmi oversees her monthly monoclonal antibodies treatment. He also told her about the new physical therapy program launching at Hollings that could help with the neuropathy in her hands and feet – a common side effect of treatment.

Susan Bryant Thomas (left) said her neuropathy has improved since beginning physical therapy at Hollings with Katie Schmitt (right). Photo by Josh Birch 
Susan Bryant Thomas (left) said her neuropathy has improved since beginning physical therapy at Hollings with Katie Schmitt (right).

“I have a constant, weird tingly feeling on the bottom of both of my feet and in my hands,” Thomas said. “I also lost mobility in my hands because of the treatment.”

Helping cancer patients to regain strength and mobility using physical therapy is a personal mission for Schmitt, who lost her dad, uncle and mother-in-law to cancer. “I’ve seen what cancer can do to somebody firsthand. When my dad was in hospice, he really wanted to get up and move around. That got me thinking, ‘How can we get you to move as much as possible?’ I think one of the things that would have been helpful for him is if he could’ve had someone come to the house and help him maintain whatever mobility was possible.”

Since then, she has wanted to provide the type of support that her dad lacked, for other cancer patients and survivors. The former actress traveling the country in a van pivoted careers to attend Columbia University Irving Medical Center for physical therapy. Schmitt started at MUSC in 2018 and from the very beginning, she was committed to starting a physical therapy program for cancer patients.

While the COVID-19 pandemic slowed progress, the pilot physical therapy program launched in December 2020. On January 3, Schmitt began seeing patients at Hollings full time, focusing on side effects stemming from treatment, including neuropathy, and issues related to balance, breathing and mobility.

“Common treatments like chemotherapy can cause your heart and lungs not to work as well, causing neuropathy and cancer-related fatigue,” she said. “Quality of life is so bad because you’re going through this crazy battle with so many side effects. There is so much focus on treating the actual cancer itself – and rightly so. But more and more people are now realizing that physical therapy can really help cancer patients live a better life during and after treatment.”

Hollings' physical therapist Katie Schmitt, DPT. Photo by Josh Birch 
Schmitt hopes to provide physical therapy for cancer patients and survivors to improve their quality of life.

Schmitt said she tailors each physical therapy program to that patient. She also said doing physical therapy with cancer patients is very different from the physical therapy someone rehabbing from an injury would have. 

“I can look at a patient’s white blood cell count or platelet count and determine what exercises to do and the intensity of those exercises,” Schmitt said. “That answers important questions like are weights appropriate to use with this patient? Can you use resistance bands? What kind of cardio would be good for this patient? These are all questions I consider to ensure the physical therapy program I put together is tailored to that specific patient to improve his or her quality of life.”

Thomas said she already notices a big difference in her mobility and neuropathy since starting physical therapy with Schmitt this past November. They meet once a week. Today, Thomas is able to enjoy her two passions in life again – yoga and running. She credits that to physical therapy and encourages other patients struggling with side effects to try it, too.

“It is so important for all patients to learn about their diagnoses and then work with their care providers to determine a course of action that can help them to navigate treatment and possible side effects to treatment,” Thomas said. “For me, part of that course of action was physical therapy.”

Cancer patients and survivors interested in scheduling a physical therapy appointment at Hollings should call 843-792-9300.