I didn’t exactly pick cancer. Cancer picked me.
I had wanted to study bilateral deficit in grad school. How cool is it that the sum total of force produced in an individual limb is greater than when those same limbs contract at the same time?
But when I proudly announced that research topic in my interview for my doctoral program at the University of Northern Colorado (a.k.a. the ‘other’ UNC), I was quickly shot down.
“Well, that’s nice, dear. But all of our grant dollars are allocated for cancer and exercise research, so you’re going to have to study that.”
I’m pretty sure I had an internal panic attack when she said this. I had never known anyone who battled cancer. I literally knew nothing about it. Everything I did know was wrong! Immediately I pictured my great grandmother. She was 102 years old, had severe osteoporosis, and would never have been able to walk on a treadmill.
How on earth would exercise make a difference in the life of someone like that?
But in that moment, I did what any 23-year-old interviewing for a doctoral program she had no business being in would do. I smiled, nodded, and quickly agreed to anything and everything my future research advisor said!
Six months later, my first patient walked into my office. Her name was Patty. She was a young mom who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She brought her 9-year-old daughter with her to our appointment.
So many thoughts raced through my mind in that moment. Up until then, I had never thought about the fact that moms could get cancer! I didn’t have any children yet, so I questioned if Patty should hide her cancer journey from her kids. Wouldn’t it scare them? Isn’t it just too much for their little minds to grasp?
And yet, here was Patty. Like me, she didn’t pick cancer. Now she had no other option than to fight it back with everything she had. And she wanted to make sure that her daughter saw her doing just that.
Patty quickly became my hero. Week after week she would show up to exercise. Pink bandana around her head and daughter by her side. I had never seen so much courage in all my life.
Patty gave cancer a face.
But more than that. Because of Patty, I realized God’s call on my life.
For three years at UNC, I worked harder than I ever thought I could. I did exercise training with our patients, and also spent hours upon hours in our animal lab – which is ironic, because I have been a vegetarian for most of my life…and before you get too huffy about it, let me be clear that these were very large rats we worked with…. not the cute little puppy dogs I know you’re picturing! Honestly, though, I loved every second of it.
We had a little rat treadmill that we would use for our exercise sessions. Then, either before or after the exercise protocol, we would inject them with Adriamycin (that is the chemotherapy known as “Red Devil”, because….well, use your imagination….). After that, we would study their heart function.
Amazingly, every single exercise protocol we employed was cardioprotective. The animals who exercised and received the chemotherapy had hearts that were no different physiologically than the sedentary controls. Even if they just did one bout of exercise before their treatment!
By the time I graduated, I was a strong believer in the benefits of exercise during cancer recovery. I mistakenly thought it was already part of the standard of care. I thought I could walk into any cancer ward of any hospital, introduce myself, and volunteer in their exercise oncology division.
But I quickly learned that this was not the case. With very few exceptions, no one else in the country was offering exercise for cancer patients.
How in the world could this be?
I knew that exercise made a difference in the life of someone battling cancer – a tremendous difference! Therefore, I believed that every patient should have the opportunity to receive exercise training. For free, of course, because we all know how expensive cancer can be!
And so, Maple Tree Cancer Alliance was born. In 2011 we received our non-profit status, and have had the honor of serving thousands of patients since.
Fifteen years have passed since I first began working with Patty, but I still think of her every day. Her daughter is now older than I was when we first started training together. Patty has been able to be there to watch her grow up. She saw her graduate from college (UNC, of course!) and get married. This spring, she will welcome her first grandchild into the world.
Of course, many things can be attributed to Patty’s success. Answered prayer. The wisdom of her medical team. And I’d like to think that maybe…just maybe….her exercise sessions had something to do with it, too.
This is why I have made it my personal mission to advocate for exercise oncology to be part of the national standard of care for cancer recovery. I invite you to join me on this journey as we make a difference in the lives of those who bravely battle cancer. Together, we will fight cancer back!