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Sharing Survival Skills and Physical Activity


Nancy Campbell with Rita

Diverse stages of recovery actually bring together a Boston-based physical activity class for cancer survivors in very helpful ways. Here’s how.

Exercise physiologist Nancy Campbell at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute leads a twice-weekly class for women who have survived cancer.

Of the 15-16 women in the class, about half have had breast cancer and the other half have had various other cancers including lung cancer and lymphoma, she says. They are all in different stages of recovery, from still receiving chemotherapy or radiation to recently finishing treatment. Their ages range from 18-84, although Nancy says that the average age is mid-50s.

How does she lead a class with such a variety of conditions and levels? While an intern demonstrates the movements and counts out the steps, Nancy walks around to each participant and adjusts the movements to the individual’s abilities.

“It’s nice to have a spectrum of people at different times of recovery,” she says. “People are always chatting with each other. The women who are just starting treatment look to the more experienced ones for inspiration and information,” she says.

Inspiring Classmates

A Few Potential Benefits of Physical Activity for Cancer Survivors

  • strengthened muscles and bones
  • improved sleep patterns
  • help with maintaining a healthy weight
  • reduced fatigue and higher energy levels
  • improved mood and reduced anxiety

One woman who is a role model for others was diagnosed with lung cancer and told she had a year to live. Five years later, she is still attending Nancy’s physical activity class every week even though she is still on chemotherapy every three weeks. She credits the drug, her oncology team at Dana-Farber and the class for her survival.

“I know that some of the participants think, ‘If Rita can get to class, then I can do it,’” Nancy says.

Another person started coming to class last July, three days after her radiation therapy was completed. “She was frustrated, tired, not motivated and had gained weight,” Nancy recalls. “In September she joined our Healthy Living After Cancer Study on weight loss for cancer survivors, with the goal to lose 5-7 percent of their body weight.

“By early spring, she had lost weight, gained muscle mass and kept it up even after the study ended, through the holidays and the snowbound winter we had here in Boston,” Nancy recounts. “She’s one of our stars!”

If people can’t make it to class, Nancy gives them exercises they can do at home. She meets with each participant for a consultation before they begin the class, to get an idea of their level.

“Cancer can be a very isolating experience,” she comments. “People in my class have said they feel much better after joining. Also, people help each other out, and sometimes even accompany each other to chemotherapy.”

For classes led by cancer-certified fitness instructors, contact your local cancer center, YMCA or county department of recreation. Or got to the American College of Sports Medicine's Web site and use their ACSM ProFinder.

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