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Fighting Cancer with Fitness: Collaboration Arms Patients and Survivors with Practical Knowledge

A simple walking group for those affected by cancer has transformed the bond between Ithaca College and the local Cancer Resource Center into a supportive collaboration meant to keep those touched by the disease active and fit.

The budding relationship began in the summer of 2015 when Jill Mayer, a professor in IC’s Department of Physical Therapy, began a walking program for cancer survivors. Her research on the impact of physical activity on cancer patients showed her how crucial even light fitness can be for those coping with the disease, and motivated her to connect with the CRC. The organization, located in Ithaca’s West End, offers individual and group support, informational and wellness programs, and  free wigs for those impacted by cancer and its treatments.

Mayer’s walking group began with twice-weekly meetups and was led by herself and three physical therapy students interested in her research: Angela Di Francesco, Christina Gibble and Michaela Cioffredi.

From left to right: Christina Gibble, Bob Riter, Angela Di Francesco, Michaela Cioffredi, and Jill Mayer. (Photo provided.)


“The girls established some incredible relationships that helped individuals beyond just the physical side of things,” Mayer said. “They helped cancer survivors and their family members to both mentally and emotionally cope with what’s going on.”

The three students remained interested in Mayer’s research and subsequently joined her on a new research project in 2016: The Wellness and Cancer Survivorship Program. The program, which is ongoing, was designed to give a sense of normalcy to cancer survivors who want to continue exercising but need guidance, and offers a free fitness membership to cancer survivors at the Ithaca College Wellness Clinic. The exercise program accepts college faculty, staff and students with a history of cancer as well as clients of the CRC and others in the Ithaca community.

Di Francesco, a fifth year physical therapy major, has really taken the reins of the program since it began.

“Our mission when they come in is that they are here to exercise and not to be treated as a patient,” Di Francesco said. “These people are battling cancer but they still want to work out, be healthy and lead an active lifestyle, so we’re going to help them do that and take into account their special considerations.”

Though exercise is important for people living with cancer, there are special precautions that need to be considered. The individualized exercise program is designed by both exercise science and physical therapy students with supervision by a certified exercise physiologist and licensed physical therapist to optimize care in cancer recovery. The students take into account what stage and what kind of cancer their client has, as well as what medications they are on before creating a specific exercise program for that person.

“There is this population of people with cancer that don’t know what exercises to do or how much to do, and then this population of physical therapy and exercise science students who have that knowledge,” Di Francesco said of how the program brings those two groups together.

“Exercise has shown benefits in all stages of the continuum of cancer, whether they have just been diagnosed, they’re going through treatment or they’ve been through treatment,” she added.

Since the introduction of the Wellness and Cancer Survivorship Program, Di Francesco has strengthened the IC and CRC connection through volunteer work and seminars that teach people with cancer about the importance of exercise. Though Mayer attended the first few seminars and has helped with the physical therapy students’ presentation, Di Francesco and the other students have been leading the seminars at the CRC, as well as discussions at Cornell University.

“The presentation at Cornell had an overwhelming response,” Di Francesco said.  “There were people more engaged and asking more questions than they’ve ever seen at a seminar, and that was really exciting to hear.”


The Cancer Resource Center is located at 612 W State Street in the City of Ithaca. (Photo by Avalon Singer.)


Bob Riter, the director of the CRC, said the discussions connect students, oncology researchers and people living with cancer in order for everyone to learn from each other’s perspectives.

“The Cornell seminars are designed to host both researchers-in-training and people with cancer, to bring them all together and learn each other’s language,” Riter said. “It’s sometimes a challenge to digest a lot of scientific information and give it to an audience, but the seminars led by the physical therapy students gave practical advice to individuals.”

The physical therapy students have also created a pamphlet on the effects of exercise on cancer that is available at the CRC and is updated as new information and research is published. They have volunteered at the CRC’s men’s brunch and several women’s retreats. They have also worked on CRC fundraisers, such as their most recent silent auction and fashion show in April of 2017.

DiFrancesco said the men’s brunch group was very excited to have this information shared with them. “It’s really great because we start with this exercise and cancer talk and then the conversation expands to all of these different topics that they want to address,” she said.

Donna Berich, a client and volunteer at the CRC who attended the Cornell seminar and the women’s retreat, says the CRC is a nonjudgmental safe-haven for people affected by cancer. Similar to many CRC clients, Berich said she was afraid to walk in to the center and actively face her diagnosis. She said the information that the physical therapy students give to the CRC is important and that their volunteer work has been significant.

“It took me six times to walk through the door of the center, and once I did I was much calmer than when I got my diagnosis,” Berich said. “I feel so comfortable here and the students’ support and positive attitudes are just amazing. It’s nice to have extra volunteers helping.”

Riter, the CRC director, knows firsthand how important it is for medical professionals of all types to have experience with cancer patients. He is a survivor of breast cancer, which is extremely rare in men and accounts for only 1 percent of breast cancer diagnoses in the U.S. Riter finds the CRC and IC physical therapy connection mutually valuable, as the students gain professional experience from people living with cancer and the CRC clients gain the students’ knowledge.

“People in the health field are sometimes a little wary of cancer because it’s a scary word, but if we connect them with people living with cancer it makes cancer a little bit less scary and makes them better clinicians” Riter said. “We really want to educate and nurture the next generation of caregivers because if my physical therapist has worked with cancer patients, it’s a big plus.”

After the seminars on physical activity and its effects on cancer prevention and recovery began at the CRC, Cayuga Medical Center and Lifelong, an educational center for older adults in Tompkins County, reached out to Mayer requesting these seminars for their staff.

“We all have, as an Ithaca College community, a responsibility to give back to our Ithaca community,” Mayer said. “Ithaca College seeks to help students grow professionally beyond the classroom setting, so this creates an opportunity to get out on the town, meet new people, learn, be active within the community and able to give their time,” she said.

“The community is also gaining more knowledge about cancer recovery, the continuum of care and the importance of exercising throughout any phase of life.”