“Exercise like your life depends on it, because it does,” advises Dr. Leslie Waltke, PT, DPT. As a physical therapist specializing in cancer rehabilitation, Waltke helps instill this mindset among people during and after cancer treatment to help them lead active, fulfilling lives through cancer treatment and beyond.
Based in southeastern Wisconsin, Waltke worked as a physical therapist for many years before venturing into the world of oncology. Her specialization started as a personal story, witnessing a loved one go through cancer. This new perspective shed light on a number of challenges that come along with cancer treatment and survivorship, many of which caught her attention as a physical therapist: weakness, fatigue, balance and mobility issues.
She also noticed cancer survivors often felt lost and like they had to fend for themselves with physical recovery. “There is this underlying assumption: ‘I’ve had cancer, I’ve had chemo, I’ve had surgery—so I’m supposed to be miserable. I’ll never be the same,’” she says. “It is not true at all.”
Waltke completed additional physical therapy training to learn more about the specific issues individuals face during and after oncology interventions. She started providing specialized oncology physical therapy in private practice in the late 1990s, and in 2005 she joined Aurora Health Care to help build cancer rehabilitation programs in Wisconsin. Waltke also teaches and lectures worldwide.
In September 2018, friend and business advisor Linda Neff inspired Waltke to expand to a new platform. She accepted Neff’s proposal to make 30 educational online videos in 30 days, covering rehabilitation as well as general cancer information.
From the beginning, Waltke knew that cancer patients often feel like they’re “getting information from a firehose,” with endless lists of medications, specialty doctors and acronyms that can be difficult to understand. When starting her video series, aptly named “The Recovery Room,” she aimed to break down key concepts in an entertaining and approachable way to empower and inform people at all stages of the cancer journey.
By the end of the 30-day challenge, she had several hundred viewers. Her work resonated with the cancer community in a new way. “People wanted more, and the comments kept coming,” she says.
She knew she couldn’t stop there, and “The Recovery Room” YouTube channel now has dozens of videos and over 1,000 subscribers, while the Facebook page has nearly 15,000 followers and 1.25 million views. Recordings include exercise demonstrations, explanations of issues such as fatigue and lymphedema, insights on the psychological impacts of cancer and information about various oncology procedures and treatments.
Waltke explains that through treating patients, educating the health care community and sharing videos, her mission is to “alleviate unnecessary suffering” that comes along with cancer.
Waltke is dedicated to changing the oncology landscape to involve physical therapy as soon as possible after a cancer diagnosis. She explains that health care providers are often siloed into their own specialties, and the role of physical therapy isn’t always well understood by oncology teams. In a similar vein, she says, many physical therapists don’t have specialized training in cancer rehabilitation. She hopes this gap can close so that more providers will incorporate physical therapy for all stages of the cancer experience.
While dedicating time to rest is essential, Waltke stresses that individuals should strive to maintain some level of activity appropriate to their situation. Her motivating videos in “The Recovery Room” encourage safe and effective movements to practice throughout various stages of treatment and recovery.
Over the years, Waltke has seen that her audience appreciates that her videos are “fun, honest and accurate.” Given the continued popularity of her videos, in November 2021 Waltke launched “Recovery Room Plus,” a subscription-based service providing live virtual events, talks from medical experts, a resource library and a member community component.
According to Waltke, it’s never too late to start physical therapy—even decades after a diagnosis. She is adamant that many challenges in the cancer experience can be minimized through physical therapy. With an estimated 17 million cancer survivors in the United States, she says, “We won’t stop until cancer stops.”
To view “The Recovery Room” videos, visit facebook.com/lesliewaltkept..