Fitness program helps cancer survivors regain strength, control, confidence
It’s not quite 8 o’clock on a chilly fall morning, but Deb Gorman-Fouts is already well into her workout in a small exercise room in the McPhee Physical Education Center on upper campus. Under the watchful eye of a UW-Eau Claire kinesiology student and a professor, Gorman-Fouts uses resistance bands and medicine balls to stretch her muscles and strengthen her body.
“I love it,” Gorman-Fouts, 50, said of her twice-weekly campus workouts last fall. “I’m amazed at the differences I’m feeling and seeing in my body, especially those areas that were most in need of strengthening.”
Exercise has always been a part of Gorman-Fouts’ life, but breast cancer — and the surgeries and chemotherapy used to treat it — weakened her muscles and left her wondering how to rebuild her strength.
“It’s been three years since my last chemo drip, but I’m still trying to heal,” Gorman-Fouts said. “After the chemo treatments, I didn’t have much strength or stamina, and I was afraid to push myself. I limited my physical activities, which bothered me. I needed to get to a place mentally where I was confident that I could do things again and live life. Coming here is helping me do that, and it’s been good for my kids, family and friends to see that there is life after cancer.”
Gorman-Fouts was one of 11 participants last fall in UW-Eau Claire’s Cancer Recovery and Fitness Program, a free program that pairs kinesiology students with Chippewa Valley cancer survivors who have been referred to the program by oncologists at the Marshfield Clinic.
“It’s an excellent program and a huge benefit to cancer survivors and to this community,” Gorman-Fouts said of the 12-week program. “The students have so much compassion. They want us to feel as good as we can considering the treatment and the trauma we’ve had to our bodies, minds, spirits and souls.”
The student volunteers — under the guidance of Matthew Wiggins, chair of the kinesiology department — create and oversee workout programs for the participants, all of whom are cancer survivors at various stages of their recovery.
Since the disease, treatments and recovery vary from person to person, the students assess each participant and develop an individualized fitness plan that will meet their needs, Wiggins said. The students then help participants carry out the plan during one-on-one 30-minute workout sessions twice a week, which take place in a room reserved for the program.
“They are the only ones in the room so they don’t have to feel self-conscious or uncomfortable,” Wiggins said. “It also makes it easier for them to talk with the students or other cancer survivors so they build a support system.”
Even though to some people the changes may seem small, I know I’ve helped make a big difference in their quality of life. — Ashleigh Handorff
The physical and mental benefits of the program have been tremendous, said Maxine Miller, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 and relapsed two years later. After the relapse, Miller was determined to be more proactive in her efforts to keep her body strong.
“Coming here is a highlight of my day,” Miller, 65, said last fall. “After my relapse, I was determined to do whatever I could to strengthen my body without letting it become an obsession. This program is above and beyond anything I was expecting.”
The one-on-one attention is among the program’s strengths, Miller said, noting that the students challenged her but also were careful that she didn’t overextend herself.
“I can tell daily that I’m stronger; I feel empowered,” Miller said.
The UW-Eau Claire program is similar to a successful program Wiggins established at his previous institution, a program he created after his father and father-in-law both died of cancer.
“Losing both of them to cancer changed how I thought about my work and research,” Wiggins said. “Cancer takes so much from people; I want to give them something back. I hate cancer, but I can’t stop it. But I can help the people who are here now. This is something good that’s coming from my father’s death. I believe my dad led me to this place so I can make a difference. Doing this is unbelievably enjoyable.”
When Wiggins came to UW-Eau Claire, he contacted Marshfield Clinic’s local cancer center to see if its staff was interested in working with him to launch the program. The clinic agreed and now refers patients to the program.
The program serves a new group of about a dozen cancer survivors each semester, Wiggins said. Limited space on campus requires that the number of participants remain small, so limiting participation to one semester allows the program to meet the needs of more people, he said, noting that he hopes those who have participated will continue to use what they learned from the program.
Marshfield Clinic Cancer Care at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire is constantly working to improve its survivorship program, said Kari Oliver, a chemotherapy nurse and fitness coordinator for the clinic’s program. The WINGS (We Inspire, Nurture and Give Support) survivorship program provides education and counseling, and it develops a wellness care plan that includes resources that can help patients make positive changes in their lives, she said.
“When Dr. Wiggins contacted us about starting a Cancer Recovery and Fitness Program it was an answer to our prayers,” Oliver said. “It has been shown that exercise and maintaining a healthy weight lowers the chances for recurrence and also helps patients regain some control, which can then help them cope with the psychosocial aspects of cancer. This program was a perfect fit for us.”
The program’s design reflects Wiggins’ personal experience with cancer patients, Oliver said.
“The beauty of Dr. Wiggins’ program is that he understands the varied issues of cancer patients, and the program is geared toward meeting their individual needs,” Oliver said. “Patients might have different physical changes or limited stamina as a result of surgery, radiation or chemotherapy. They may not be ready physically or emotionally to join a gym or exercise class. The individual care and guidance that patients get at UW-Eau Claire provides a stepping-stone to a healthier, more active lifestyle.”
Senior kinesiology major Ashleigh Handorff volunteers for the program because cancer also has touched her life — her mother has twice been diagnosed with cancer.
“This is near and dear to my heart,” Handorff said. “Every person I’ve worked with has moved me. I know where they were before they started the program, and I see what they’re like when they’re done. Even though to some people the changes may seem small, I know I’ve helped make a big difference in their quality of life.”
The exercises, designed to improve strength and flexibility, are basic enough that participants can do them at home, Handorff said. As a result, they can continue exercising after the program ends, she said.
While she values the connections she makes with cancer survivors, Handorff said she also is gaining valuable experience in her field.
“This gives me a hands-on feel for what I will possibly be doing in the future,” said Handorff, who plans to pursue a graduate degree in cardiac rehabilitation. “It gives me a better feel for how to handle certain situations, which is something I can’t get without experiencing it myself.”
It’s rewarding to see the participants gain strength and flexibility, said Katie Appel, a senior kinesiology major who also volunteers in the program.
“I don’t even have to ask; I can see their quality of life is improving,” Appel said. “When people first come, they often struggle to get on and off the mat that we stretch on. By the end of the semester, they start popping off the mat. To me, that’s an enormous accomplishment. People tell me they have more energy; they can do everyday things without feeling wiped out. Those small changes are exactly what are making a difference.”
Appel said the program also has made a difference in her life.
“Having an impact on even one life makes me feel like I’ve helped the world,” said Appel, who plans to become a physical therapist. “Every improvement and every thank-you means a lot to me. I’m from this area, but I feel more connected to the community now than ever. I’m usually swamped with one thing or another, but it’s calming to work with them. I know this is exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Photos by Rick Mickelson