Tucked inside the Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute in Charlotte is a community of people who have one thing in common – they’re cancer survivors, all in different stages of their journey, but connected in a way that’s unspoken.
For Mike Jones, 67, the bond is so powerful that he has no intention of stopping. Ever. “I’ll come here until I die,” he said.
Jones knows one of the most challenging parts of cancer is managing the side effects of treatment. That’s where the Cancer Wellness Exercise program comes in. Formerly called Strides to Strength, the program improves quality of life by reducing fatigue and other side effects of treatment through personalized exercise therapy. In fact, doctors say exercise can be a key factor in helping cancer patients recover by strengthening their body for the fight and stoking their motivation to keep going.
But the program is about more than exercise. It’s a holistic approach to getting stronger – mind and body – and includes things like nutritional counseling and yoga, in addition to guided weekly exercise.
‘Make your peace with God’
There are moments in life that stick out. For Jones, a Belmont resident and former Duke Energy surveyor, one of those moments came in August 2015. Jones’ oncologist, Dr. Catherine Moore of Novant Health Cancer Specialists, delivered some tough news: He had late-stage follicular lymphoma.
“When you’re lying in a hospital bed and the doctor says, ‘You have stage 4 cancer.’ You go ahead and make your peace with God. You get ready,” Jones said.
After months of chemotherapy, the Jones family received the news they had hoped for: his cancer was in remission. But he felt physically, mentally and emotionally drained.
“I could hardly walk and was using a cane,” Jones said.
To combat the side effects of treatment, Moore referred Jones to the Cancer Exercise Wellness program. Exercise physiologist Natalie Fulton is part of the team that helped Jones recover.
“When Mike joined in 2016, I think he was frustrated with his limitations,” Fulton said. “Now you can see muscles where you couldn't see muscles before. He works out with the class, but he also does strength training independently in the corner of the gym using some of the heaviest weights we have. He recognizes how important exercise has been not only to his recovery, but to him, continuing the quality of life that he was able to get back.”
More than four years into remission, Jones marvels at how far he’s come.
“I got my independence and self-esteem back. That’s what cancer takes away from you,” he said. “As a sick person, you're no longer independent. That's what really bothered me. Coming out here – you’re physical, you work out, you get to meet people and once your physical abilities return, your independence returns.”
An unofficial support group
The Cancer Wellness Exercise program is offered at several Novant Health locations, including Charlotte where Fulton and registered nurse Janie Eriksen work. They call the program an unofficial support group because survivors’ bond over things they don’t have to discuss.
“You have people of all ages, all walks of life, whether it's education or socioeconomic, and yet there's a commonality when you walk in here,” Eriksen said. “They have one thing in common, and that allows them to be friends.”
Patients are often referred to the program by their physician and join at different stages in their cancer journey – some are still going through chemotherapy or radiation and others are cancer-free. If a patient chooses to stay beyond the three-month program, they go into what Eriksen calls the maintenance program.
“It starts to feel like a family since many of them are here so long. We talk to them about health and exercise, but we also talk to them about their family, their vacations, their fears and hopes,” Eriksen said. “You're rejoicing when there’s good news, but you’re also there for the downs.”
Everything about the patient is considered – their cancer diagnosis, level of fatigue, medical history, as well as changes in heart rate and blood pressure. There is also an open line of communication with the patients’ physicians. This guided approach helps participants exercise at the right level.
“The bodies of cancer survivors can respond to exercise in the same way that the bodies of non-cancer survivors will adapt and change,” Fulton said. “They might not be able to do certain exercises, they might have to change some movements, and that's where we come in. We help them work around whatever their limitations are.”
Dr. Dipika Misra, an oncologist at Novant Health Cancer Specialists - Charlotte, is the top referring physician to the program, which has roughly 100 participants across its Charlotte, Matthews and Huntersville locations. Misra said diet and exercise are especially important for cancer patients.
“We have seen better tolerance to chemotherapy, better recovery following chemotherapy, and overall it seems that patients have better outcomes,” Misra said. “If you have kept your body healthy and strong, it's easier to tolerate such an aggressive treatment. Unfortunately diet and exercise are not something I can give as a pill. It is something you have to stay motivated and continue to do and I think the Cancer Wellness Exercise program is a great part of our cancer care.”
Cancer survival rates have increased in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But while new and improved chemotherapy and radiation treatments save lives, some of these life-saving cancer treatments may cause injury to the heart. Novant Health’s Cardio-oncology program further explores how cancer treatment affects the heart and vascular system.
The medical director of the program, cardiologist Dr. William O. Ntim, is spearheading a research trial known as UPBEAT study. Dr. Gregory Hundley, the principal investigator for the UPBEAT Study and Director of the Pauley Heart Cancer at the Virginia Commonwealth School of Medicine, has also confirmed appointment of Dr. Ntim to the Imaging Subcommittee and Steering Committee of the UPBEAT study. The goal of the study can be found in its name – Understanding and Predicting Breast Cancer Events after Treatment (UPBEAT). Participants include women with breast cancer in stages 1-3 who are scheduled to receive adjuvant or neo-adjuvant chemotherapy, as well as 160 cancer-free women for comparison. Ntim said breast cancer patients who receive that type of chemotherapy have a relatively higher risk of heart issues. The surveillance study will monitor the patients over seven years to track any cardiovascular events that may arise - including heart disease, heart failure, abnormal heart rhythm and heart attack. Interested patients may contact their oncology providers to determine if they will be eligible for enrollment on this study.
If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, talk to your Novant Health doctor so you can create an action plan to protect your heart.