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New Cancer Lab Has Potential to Be Game Changer for Cancer Patients

May 10, 2022
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"We want to know what rehabilitation is being done right now with cancer survivors, what’s working, what evidence we have for that," says Dr. Kathy Lyons.

Occupational therapist Dr. Kathy Lyons, director of the Cancer Rehabilitation (CaRe) Lab, is focused on determining when rehabilitation can accelerate recovery from curable cancers and help maintain individuals’ ability to function when living with incurable cancer.

By John Shaw
Office of Strategic Communications

When people think about cancer recovery, most often the focus is on the physiological: Is the cancer under control? Have symptoms and side effects been reduced as much as possible? A new research lab at the MGH Institute will investigate the effect of rehabilitation on cancer recovery. 

Kathleen Lyons, ScD, OTR/L, is heading up the Cancer Rehabilitation (CaRe) Lab, one of just a small number of research labs in the country focusing on the topic. “Rehabilitation research for cancer patients is a wide-open field at the moment,” said Dr. Lyons. “We don’t have those large-scale controlled studies that show how it might help certain cancer patients recover faster. The CaRe Lab has the potential to be a game changer in that regard." 

“Rehabilitation isn’t always integrated into oncology, in part because not every cancer patient needs it. But there is a subset of cancer survivors who really struggle to resume their lives and their work. The goal is to figure out when rehabilitation could accelerate recovery from curable cancers and when it could help maintain individuals’ ability to function when living with incurable cancer,” said Lyons, who has published several papers on the subject. 

Psychology is a big part of any patient’s recovery and has been a significant part of Lyons’ career as well. “Occupational therapists and psychologists often play in the same sandbox,” she said. “Behavioral therapies aim to improve a patient’s mood, partly by helping them to engage in valued activities that make life worth living. OT brings an additional toolkit to behavioral therapy, by teaching people to adapt activities or modify routines or environments to make it easier to function, or by reducing impairments caused by cancer and its treatment. Cataloging these successful OT approaches for cancer patients is a big part of our research.” 

The lab already has several research studies underway—Lyons has received funding from the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and the American Occupational Therapy Foundation—but she and her team will gather research and data from the front lines as well. 

“The CaRe Lab won’t just announce a hypothesis, do a study, and then publish the results,” she explained. “We want to know what rehabilitation is being done right now with cancer survivors, what’s working, what evidence we have for that. OT, PT, and speech-language pathology clinicians working directly with patients have a vast resource of knowledge we want to tap into.” 

Lyons is a big believer in applied research, which benefits patient and clinician alike. Working together with clinicians comes easily to Lyons, who spent six years as a practicing clinician in geriatrics. But her passion for evidence-based practice led her into research. Prior to coming to the IHP last fall, she was a senior scientist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and an associate professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. During her time there, Lyons had the good fortune to work on a groundbreaking study on palliative care, the results of which helped move palliative care more into the mainstream of oncology treatments. 

“I think the research from the CaRe Lab can have a similar effect,” said Lyons. “Right now, rehabilitation research for cancer patients is years behind palliative care research. But the CaRe Lab will help us close that gap, and that’s exciting.”