Sat. Spotlight: Working out is the newest cancer wonder drug
In an era when so many cancer activists stress themselves to raise money to help find a cure for cancer, the best news is that the latest "wonder drug" for cancer isn't a drug at all. It’s exercise!
These days the National Institute of Cancer is spreading what they believe to be an ultra-important message for cancer patients and survivors: avoid inactivity.
If there were to be a face for this campaign, the NIC could do no better than Pat Shaw, 60, of Burlington, Ont.
Shaw is strong, determined and happy these days despite suffering several major health setbacks in the past decade. Six years ago, Shaw, a retired, married mother of two, was diagnosed with a non-cancerous brain tumor subsequently declared to be inoperable.
Then last year, in the spring, Shaw learned she had breast cancer. The treatment for this was swift – she had a lumpectomy that June that also excised two lymph nodes.
To add to her misery, over this period she twice has suffered fractured bones in her feet.
Shaw might be forgiven for deciding to take it easy, faced with these significant health problems. But that is not Pat Shaw. She has been a triathlon participant (involving swimming, cycling and running) since 2001 but after learning she had the brain tumor, she decided not to slow down but rather to escalate her training and work towards the more arduous Ironman.
“When I was diagnosed, I told my husband I wanted to do an Ironman, but I could not find a coach who believed I could master it,” says Shaw. One trainer expressed scepticism that she could accomplish the Ironman in her condition, Shaw says, but “I knew it was doable. I didn’t feel fragile and I didn’t know how much time I had. But I figured if this ‘thing’ was going to take me, I was going to do it my way.”
In 2008, Shaw met a group of triathletes known as the IronDames and began training with them. Through the IronDames, she learned about Ontario’s Wellspring program, the Iron Dames’ favoured fundraising target.
Founded in 1992, Wellspring consists of a string of community-based cancer-support centres that offer over 50 free programs. Wellspring relies heavily on private fundraising and its donors are often former cancer patients who remain involved with Wellspring, offering peer support in addition to their fundraising.
Wellspring has become a leading advocate of fighting cancer through fitness through its Cancer Exercise Program. The founder of the program, physiotherapist Jodie Steele, whole-heartedly supported Shaw’s Ironman goals.
By early 2010 Shaw was planning ahead for her first Ironman (a 3.86 kilometre swim followed by a 180 km. bike ride and a 42 km. run), but then came the diagnosis of cancer. Even while preparing for her lumpectomy in June, Shaw kept training for the Ironman, to be held in Lake Placid, NY in July, six weeks after her surgery.
Ignoring her doctor’s advice, Shaw participated in the Ironman, stitches and all, and managed to finish before the deadline despite her relatively unfit condition.
Today, Shaw has fast friends in the IronDames program and together, the 25 women seem to be forever breaking new ground in achieving personal bests in cycling events, triathlons and the more challenging Ironman competitions. Just in September, eight IronDames competed in the Road Centurion Canada cycling event with Shaw placing second in her age group in the 50 Mile Ride, and Shaw also completed the Muskoka Half Ironman and qualified for the world championships in Las Vegas in 2012.
And she has targeted the 2012 Ironman at Lake Placid for a return visit – aiming to compete in full fitness, unlike in July 2010.
The Wellspring programs have heroes like Pat Shaw at every turn. IronDames was founded by Kim Pace, who was 42 when diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2007.
“Kim inspired a great group of girls to come together in support,” says Shaw. ”We decided if we are going to do this and make money, we should do it for Wellspring’s exercise program.”
Alas, Pace succumbed to her disease this past summer, mourned by all 25 members of the IronDames.
Then there is the physiotherapist Steele. She was planning to become a pediatrician but after watching her mother die a slow sedentary death from cancer, she changed her career focus. In 2009 she designed, developed and launched the Cancer Exercise Program that is followed by five Wellspring locations in Ontario.
Studies: Cancer and Exercise
The benefits of rigorous exercise while dealing with cancer have been well documented in the last decade, Steele says, pointing to:
• a 2005 study by Holmes et al that identified a 20- 50-per-cent increase in survival among of women with breast cancer when they exercised three to five hours per week; and
• a 2006 report by Meyerhardt et al who found that increasing exercise in patients with colorectal cancer decreased mortality by 50 per cent.
Steele trains patients in all stages at Wellspring, including those undergoing high-dose chemotherapy.
She says she is thrilled that the IronDames are committed to raising money towards building Wellspring a new gym next year. Shaw and the other IronDames have their sites set high. “Last year we raised $156,000 and this year the target is $200,000 for the new training room at Wellspring Halton/Peel,” Shaw reports.
Shaw still suffers with the brain tumor; it causes her severe headaches, loss of balance, nausea and a disrupted thought process. But she is free from breast cancer.
She explains her logic in devoting herself to working out despite her illnesses.
“If you have a goal, then you must train – and then the training becomes your focus, not the illness.”