Graduate students start cancer exercise rehabilitation therapy program

-James Osborne, News Editor

This past semester, MC graduate exercise science students have been working on a new internship program in partnership with Central Mississippi Medical Center. The program will help benefit cancer patients and survivors who are still fighting to gain back their strength. The program is called Cancer Exercise Rehabilitation Therapy, and its goal is to help cancer patients improve their quality of life, self-esteem, and motivation. The graduate students involved so far are Katelyn Zachary, Jon Phillips, Travis Twilbeck, and Zack Villarubia. The program is sponsored by MC kinesiology professor and licensed exercise physiologist Suzanne McDonnough.

On Tuesday, Dec. 2, the group met their first official participant for the program. “She is the first cancer survivor to have received official doctor’s orders for cancer exercise rehabilitation therapy, not only at this particular hospital, but in the state,” said Phillips. “So this marks a monumental advancement in the field of cancer treatment.” The participant will begin her exercise therapy next week on site at CMMC.

“Before beginning our partnership with CMMC, it was crucial that those of us involved in this project be able to pilot this health screening, fitness assessment, and exercise prescription model with a handful of individuals to assure our readiness to begin working with patients at the hospital,” said Phillips.

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                  McDonnough’s interest in exercise rehabilitation first came from talking with a neighborhood friend, Annette Thomas, who was a cancer patient, but is now cancer free. When Thomas was going through chemotherapy, McDonnough suggested a regular exercise regimen to boost her health. “I saw it really work,” said McDonnough, “And when you see something work like that you know it’s a big deal.”

McDonnough was contacted by CMMC about starting a joint cancer exercise rehabilitation program. Over the summer she went to the University of Northern Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute (RMCRI) to take classes and study the program they have there.

According to McDonough, regular exercise promotes good health and can be very beneficial for cancer patients. Regular exercise can actually help boost a person’s immune system. Doctors may have recommended exercise in the past, but now, thanks to this program, a doctor can actually write a prescription for an exercise plan. “If doctors would actually prescribe exercise, more cancer patients would do it,” said McDonnough. She said if something is written on a prescription it is thought to be more thought out and needed than just a recommendation.

The goal of the program, said McDonnough, is self-sufficiency and a patient feeling that exercise at least three times a week is something they need to do.

Thomas has been the test participant for the program this past semester. For the past eight weeks, Travis Twilbeck has been training Thomas at the Healthplex using RMCRI’s model under the supervision of McDonnough. Each day she shows up for training, she reports how beneficial the exercise therapy has been for improving her muscular strength, mood, and overall quality of life. “I was thrilled,” said Thomas. “I see so much potential in a program like this.” Thomas has had a program filled with cardio, weights and strength training, and balancing, and she regularly walks and rides a bike. “It gives me a sense of accomplishment,” said Thomas. “The students are very encouraging, kind, and patient. We’ve had a lot of fun. I think this program will help all cancer patients.”

“Seeing her improve over these past eight weeks has been phenomenal,” said Katelyn Zachary. “When you show someone that you believe in them then they start believing they can do it too,” said Zachary, who said she is very affectionate toward cancer patients because her father died of cancer when she was seven. “Helping people have a better quality of life makes me fulfilled, especially since I couldn’t do that with my dad.”

Besides the internship for graduate students, McDonnough is hoping to start a class for undergraduate students on the benefits of exercise for cancer patients and how to prepare an exercise program for them. If MC is able to begin class it will be the second college in the nation to have such a class, with RMCRI being the first.

“Cancer Exercise Rehabilitation Therapy is not a widely-used method of care for cancer patients,” said Phillips. “Adopting a class for students to learn about the ways exercise can attenuate cancer progression and mitigate the negative side-effects that typically come along with the treatment process will be a fantastic addition to any health-related field of study’s curriculum. The provision for internship opportunities that will accompany such a class will hopefully encourage students to pursue careers as healthcare professionals with a focus on exercise as a means of adjuvant care for cancer and various other diseases. Should this program prove to be effective in improving the quality of life of participating cancer patients, we hope the hospital considers adopting cancer exercise rehabilitation therapy as permanent part of their cancer treatment program.”

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