Beating cancer is a major victory, but there’s a flip side that has long troubled Dr. Jamie Renbarger, section chief of hematology/oncology at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. Both patients and clinicians are laser-focused on treating and beating cancer, but after they triumph over the disease, Renbarger says, “I hear from so many [survivors]…it’s really scary to feel that sense of ‘What do I do now?’” She’s created a nonprofit called Karuna Precision Wellness Center to help rebuild survivors’ physical, mental and nutritional health to live fuller lives after a disease that leaves lingering challenges.
“The reality is a lot of what we do to treat cancer involves using toxic things: chemotherapy, poison and radiation. Those things have the beneficial effect of helping to treat cancer, but also leave people with long-term, irreversible or slowly improving effects of cancer and cancer treatments,” says Renbarger, the founder of Karuna. “There’s a big gap in addressing how to help people live healthy, full lives after cancer; we don’t have great ways of helping people work through that.”
Cancer treatments are continuously improving, swelling the number of success stories; there are nearly 20 million survivors in the U.S. and about half-a-million in Indiana. But many are burdened with lingering issues related to treatment or the disease itself, such as impaired memory, decreased physical functioning, neuropathy and other conditions that impact their daily activities and quality of life.
“They may look or feel relatively normal, but [issues] can run the gamut from having a difficult time getting back up to speed at work or school because their thinking or memory aren’t what they used to be, to having more serious physical functioning challenges,” says Renbarger. “There are also mental health challenges, like depression, anxiety and PTSD.”
“Karuna” means to act out of compassion to help someone who is suffering, and that’s Renbarger’s vision for the center, which now has its first physical location at the Indianapolis Healthplex. Cancer specialists at Karuna will provide services such as massage, acupuncture, exercise sessions and nutritional advice tailored to each client and his or her personal goals. Other services include counseling with an oncology mental health practitioner and cognitive therapy to address the effects of chemotherapy.
The center is open to any individual, including children, regardless of where they received cancer treatment. Each client will have a free, extensive one-on-one assessment to explore their needs, then the center’s team members will work together to develop a three-month wellness plan for each client, based on his or her cancer history, challenges and main goals—“why they walked in the door,” says Renbarger. A free, personalized exercise plan is given to each client, and the team will revisit clients’ wellness plans every three months for modification as they show improvement, set new goals or want to try new services.
Aiming to swell the body of research that shows the impact of caring for cancer survivors in this way, clients will have the opportunity to take part in clinical studies. The center’s first clinical study is already underway to examine the impact of customized exercise interventions to improve long-term health outcomes in cancer survivors who are 15 through 39 years old.
“I’m compelled to provide evidence for the medical and scientific community—as well as, ultimately, insurance companies—that there’s a benefit to these kinds of services in people impacted by cancer,” says Renbarger. “They may not only improve their quality of life but, potentially, their productivity or ability to be physically active; that may help to prevent other kinds of illnesses—ultimately, that could hopefully save healthcare costs.”
Renbarger says Karuna plans to expand its services to cancer survivors’ family members, who also face significant challenges after their loved one battles the disease. The center hopes to expand to the other eight IU School of Medicine campuses outside Indianapolis, as well as provide virtual services.
Renbarger is hopeful the research conducted at the center will capture evidence on how it’s benefitting cancer survivors. The data is critical, not only for the medical community and integrative health professionals throughout the world, but also insurance providers, so the services could be covered as survivors reclaim full, healthy lives after cancer.
Renbarger describes how the client’s customized wellness plan is periodically reevaluated and modified to meet his or her changing needs or desires.
Renbarger says the center’s research and education component reaches far beyond IU.