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Even in the midst of treatment, many cancer patients are finding that exercise helps them to feel better, both physically and emotionally. Through the Get Real & Heal program, UNC researchers are digging deeper into the science behind why moving more can make a positive impact on patients’ overall health and well-being.

Breast cancer survivors stretch out before beginning a session with Get Real & Heal
Breast cancer survivor Amy Charney runs in the 2015 Boston Marathon.

It was a cold, wet, windy day as Amy Charney looked out her bedroom window. She’d slept well, and even though it was raining, she was happy to be back in her hometown, running her seventh Boston Marathon.

It had been almost six months since she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she was still going through chemotherapy back home in Chapel Hill. But she was excited about the race, nervous to see if she could run the entire 26.2 miles. After Amy laced up her running shoes, she pinned the race bib onto her T-shirt, just below the words ‘She’s a FIGHTER!’

“Are you ready, Mom?” Her 13-year-old daughter Julia asked, grinning at her mother with pride.

Amy was more than ready; she was on a mission. And breast cancer wasn’t going to change her plans. Cancer patients throughout the N.C. Cancer Hospital are doing just what Amy has done: taking control of their healing through the many physical and mental benefits of regular exercise.

By running the Boston Marathon, I learned that, in spite of breast cancer, I am still me,” says Amy. “I still wear my running gear to every chemotherapy appointment to remind myself of who I am. I want this ordeal to be a thing of the past.”

And this empowerment of hope through health is precisely why UNC Lineberger researchers are diving deeper into the research of how physical activity impacts the lives of cancer patients.

“The benefits are countless,” says Claudio Battaglini, UNC Lineberger member and associate professor of exercise and sport science. Since 2004, Battaglini has led research to study how physical activity could work to alleviate patients’ symptoms during treatment and improve their quality of life.

“Ten years ago or so, I still remember patients being advised to rest as much as possible because of some misconceptions that exercise could make them feel even more fatigued and weaker. At the hematology oncology unit, patients would stay inside their rooms all day afraid of getting an infection if they left their rooms. Now, patients are up and moving thanks to new programs and expanded research in this area.”

And the benefits reach beyond the physical. Seeking to incorporate the emotional and psychological benefits of physical activity, Battaglini helped establish the Get Real & Heel program. Get Real & Heel is a free exercise and wellness program designed to help cancer patients who have recently completed treatment. The program works to alleviate treatment-related symptoms and to improve the overall health and quality of life for cancer patients in North Carolina.

And while there is growing evidence of the benefit of physical activity for cancer survivors, many questions still remain. How much physical activity should a patient participate in during treatment? And how can we develop programs that patients are likely to continue at home following their treatment?

“We need to better understand how to best tailor exercise programs for each patient. And especially how we can best equip survivors to continue the exercise at home following their treatment,” says William Wood, MD, UNC Lineberger member and medical oncologist.

UNC Lineberger researchers like Wood are using technology to help answerthese questions. Using wearable devices such as the FitBit, researchers are working with cancer patients during their treatment in an effort to help develop custom, home-based exercise programs. They are also aiming to better understand how the physical activity helped patients during and after their treatment.

Retired Greensboro resident Jeff Taylor participated in the study.

Taylor, diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2013, was approached about the study while completing his bone marrow transplant therapy at the N.C. Cancer Hospital. While Jeff is currently in remission on maintenance chemotherapy, he still knows he will live with his disease the rest of his life. But Jeff is not letting it stop him one bit — and he’s continuing his walking as a way to keep fit and active post-treatment.

In the fall, Jeff will embark on a 22-day trek across France and Italy with his family. “We’ll be doing a lot of walking on that trip,” Jeff says with a grin.

Cancer survivors like Amy and Jeff are using exercise as a part of their treatment plan, while also helping UNC Lineberger researchers better understand the benefits of regular physical activity on cancer outcomes — all to help future cancer patients battle their cancer with hope through health.