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Prioritize exercise, diet to fight fatigue, depression after breast-cancer …

Eat your veggies and get plenty of exercise is good advice for anyone, but it especially rings true for breast cancer patients.

Women who have just gone through surgery, chemotherapy or radiation may not feel like concentrating on their diet or lifting weights, but it could be a matter of life or death.

Recent studies have shown that exercise is even more critical than once thought.

“The largest study to date followed survivors over five years and found that one to two hours of brisk walking per week was associated with 40 percent lower risk of death overall compared with those who were less active,” said Susan Brown, managing director of health and mission program education at Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

A 2011 meta-analysis of studies found that the mortality rate for breast cancer was 34 percent lower for women who were very active when compared with women with breast cancer who weren’t active.

Even though much of the research has focused on the long-term effects of exercise, many of the results can be felt right away, said Julie Everett, physical therapist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and a certified lymphedema specialist.

“It can increase your energy, which sounds a little backward,” Everett said. “You’re expelling energy to gain more. If you increase your calorie burn, it can decrease the fatigue.”

She said that exercise also combats depression, which is common with cancer patients.

Experts agree that the key is figuring out how to get back into exercising or even start a routine from scratch when a woman is undergoing breast cancer treatment or has had surgery.

Southern Illinois residents are fortunate in that a program geared toward cancer patients can be found at John A. Logan College in Carterville and Davies Hall at SIU in Carbondale.

Strong Survivors is an exercise and nutrition program for cancer survivors and caregivers.

Phil Anton, or Dr. Phil as he is known by some of his students, is a professor of exercise physiology in the Department of Kinesiology at SIU and exercise program director of Strong Survivors. Anton supervises the exercise portion of Strong Survivors which includes student volunteers from his classes at SIU.

Anton has said he felt a calling to become involved in some way with fighting cancer when his cousin died from cancer many years ago when he was a college student.

The Strong Survivors program consists of advice on nutrition from program co-sponsor, Southern Illinois Healthcare, but also includes an exercise routine streamlined for each cancer patient’s need.

At last count, the Strong Survivors program had helped over 325 cancer survivors and caregivers by striving to improve their quality of life both physically and mentally.

Area residents can join the program as soon as they receive a cancer diagnosis.

The Strong Survivors class at Logan meets twice a week, for 12 weeks. The classes teach nutrition, and participants are shown proper exercise techniques which are performed under the watchful eye of a trainer. Personalized, flexible-schedule exercise training is also available in Davies Hall at SIU.

Southern Illinois Healthcare provides funding, support and nutrition expertise for program participates, and there is no charge to attend the Strong Survivors classes.

SIU students assist those with cancer and their caregivers while acquiring practical, hands-on experience as personal trainers.

Research data is also gathered from program participants.

“We individualize the exercise program to each participant.” Anton says. “For example, breast cancer could mean the person has limited ability to use one arm or sometimes both.”

He says one of the factors that make Strong Survivors unique is that caregivers are welcome to come to the class and learn right along with the cancer patients.

“Cancer is tough on the person who has it but almost tougher on those in a support position,” Anton said. “They often feel helpless and maybe don’t know what to say or do.”

The re-assessment after the initial 12 weeks has concluded seems to indicate that the exercise program is working.

“We have seen improvement in at least one of the test areas in every single person since we started,” he says. “In the majority of cases, we see improvement in all the test areas. We also see an improvement in mood and attitude.”

Anton says the facts and figures help him with his research but there’s more to the program than just numbers.

“I see on their faces that the program is working,” he says. “That’s much more valuable to me than any piece of research data.”

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