There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of cancer in one way or another. I guess that’s par for the course when you have made your life’s mission to improve the lives of cancer survivors. As a kid growing up I wanted to be a gun-toting CIA or FBI agent and make the world a better place through the justice system. That all changed when I myself was diagnosed with cancer at 18.
I had watched my mother go through her own personal hell with breast cancer when I was 15, but I really didn’t understand the “C” word until it was my turn. When I awoke from surgery my grandfather was standing over me. I asked him if it was cancer. The tears rolling down his cheek were the only answer I needed.
Twelve years later my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in her other breast and decided to undergo a complicated abdominal TRAM to reconstruct both her breasts. I had been a personal trainer for about five years at the time and she asked me if I would help her in her recovery. Little did I know that my father would also be diagnosed with bladder and prostate cancer and that my dear grandfather would die of lung cancer two years later. I know I am not alone in that the majority of you reading this article can relate to that “pit” in the bottom of your stomach when you or a loved one hears the words “It’s cancer.” We all must come together to take on this dreaded disease and put a stop to the rapidly growing number of cancer cases as well as the needless suffering that most often accompanies treatment. After 23 years, my mom was diagnosed last year with stage 4 widespread breast cancer.
From 1995 until now I have written 12 editions of the Cancer Exercise Specialist Advanced Qualification training manual. The information changes so quickly that it is almost impossible to keep up with. There is no room for second best in my mind. Anyone working with cancer patients whether they be an oncologist, surgeon, physical therapist, personal trainer or any other allied health professional MUST be current with the newest and evidence-based practices. As an important step in becoming a doctor, medical students must take the Hippocratic Oath. One of the promises within that oath is “first, do no harm” (or “primum non nocere,” the Latin translation from the original Greek). I believe that all of us working within this healthcare continuum should take that oath as well.
Patients and survivors suffer during and after treatment from the wretched side-effects of both surgery and treatment (radiation, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy etc.). Little do many of them know that there are also long-term side-effects or comorbidities such as osteoporosis, diabetes, heart, lung, and kidney damage, future cancers, lymphedema and more.
All of us play a role in the outcome of cancer patients – even if you do not realize it.
We CAN prevent through education. Talk to your friends and loved ones. Discuss annual exams and early detection as well as some of the signs and symptoms of various cancers; particularly if they seem to run in your family. If this is the case, consider genetic testing.
We CAN manage side-effects. Did you know that a properly prescribed and executed exercise program can actually help minimize some of the most common and debilitating side-effects of treatment. During treatment exercise can help to increase energy (76% of cancer patients will suffer with mind-numbing fatigue), decrease pain, improve sleep and appetite (both are of the utmost importance in allowing the body to heal itself), help with activities of daily living (things we want and need to do on a daily basis that may now be compromised), help to improve the body’s immune system as well as lymphatic flow; both of which can help to prevent or minimize lymphedema (swelling of the area that had lymph nodes removed or irradiated).
In the long haul, exercise can increase bone-density and help to prevent osteoporosis which is a common side-effect after hormonal and chemotherapy. It can help to strengthen the heart and lungs that may have been damaged from radiation and/or chemotherapy. It can help one to achieve a healthy body composition which can reduce the risk of diabetes (which can also be elevated with various surgeries and treatments), heart disease, and certain types of cancer. Ultimately it helps a patient to feel better mentally and physically and take control of their bodies after cancer has taken that away from them.
We CAN increase longevity. Study after study has shown that those who exercise have a better prognosis or life-expectancy than those who do not. In addition, quality of life can be dramatically improved!
We CAN help patients return to their former level of health & fitness or better! For those who were super-fit to begin with, there will be a natural and temporary decline. It will be difficult for some to pace themselves while their body heals while others who were previously inactive can reach new heights in their fitness and health. In either situation, a Cancer Exercise Specialist plays a critical role in bridging the gap from the in-patient or rehabilitation setting.
We CAN make a difference! Whether you are a health/fitness professional or not, you play a big role in educating people about cancer prevention, recovery , and survivorship. Not every patient has access to a comprehensive cancer center, Cancer Exercise Specialist, or even Livestrong at the YMCA. There are so many wonderful resources available now through the internet, sometimes the cancer patient simply needs someone to lovingly hold their hand and encourage them to take that next step. You can become their safety net.
Cancer affects us all in one way or another. Together, however, we can have a much greater impact than any one of us can alone. Today let’s say a prayer for those we love who are fighting the big fight, those who we have lost to cancer, and for the wisdom and tools to finally eliminate cancer.
Take your career to the next level and help the millions of cancer patients & survivors wanting to regain control of their health and their bodies.