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Prof. Sue Grayston joins Bif Naked for a morning workout - photo by Martin Dee
Prof. Sue Grayston joins Bif Naked for a morning workout - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 2 | Feb. 5, 2009

Band of Sisters

Breast Cancer Patients Test Role of Exercise

By Sean Sullivan

When Sue Grayston began chemotherapy last year, a brisk morning workout with musician Bif Naked wasn’t exactly what she was anticipating.

Grayston, a professor in the Faculty of Forestry and Canada Research Chair in Soil Microbial Ecology, found a breast lump in April 2008. She was diagnosed with cancer in May, underwent surgery in June, and began treatment shortly after.

Through a tip from her oncologist, she ended up at CARE (Combined Aerobics and Resistance Exercise), a research trial in UBC’s School of Human Kinetics that studies the role exercise plays in the lives of breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Grayston says the trial has had an unintended side effect: establishing a close-knit, emotional bond among patients, including the aforementioned Canadian rocker, that continues long after involvement with the study ends.

Women participating in CARE take part in one of three exercise programs over the course of four to six months: aerobics, high-intensity aerobics, or aerobics combined with strength-training.

Like other participants in the trial, Grayston’s progress at the small gym near Vancouver General Hospital was carefully monitored and recorded by a team of volunteers and UBC graduate students, led by research technician Diana Jespersen.

However, Grayston quickly found the program offered more than just data for CARE’s study.

“One thing they can’t measure at the moment is the support we get from the other women,” she says.

While the research will be published in oncology journals, and may lead to methods that could alter treatment for breast cancer, Grayston says it was the bond forged among the participants that helped her get through chemotherapy.

The trial has allowed her to connect with other women undergoing the same treatment, sharing tips on drugs and doctor’s visits -- not to mention the best places in town to buy wigs (chemotherapy patients typically lose most of their hair).

“It’s just made it actually bearable. I don’t know how people could do this without support,” she says.

Led by Dr. Don McKenzie, director of Sports Medicine at UBC and Dr. Karen Gelman of the B.C. Cancer Agency, the trial is a joint venture between UBC, the University of Alberta and the University of Ottawa.

McKenzie is known worldwide for launching the Abreast in a Boat dragon boat racing program, following his study that debunked a long-held belief that upper-body exercise in women treated for breast cancer encouraged lymphedema, an irreversible swelling in the arm and chest.

He says the current research trial could mark a turning point for women undergoing breast cancer treatment.

 “After 25 years, we’re starting to appreciate that exercise is as useful in intervention and health care as a lot of the other things we can do.”

However, he concedes it can be difficult for a woman undergoing chemotherapy to find the motivation to begin exercising.

“Chemotherapy takes the wind out of your sails,” he says at the project’s small gym. Side effects vary greatly, but patients can experience anemia, nausea, fatigue and depression. It’s hardly the stuff that would prompt a visit to the treadmill.

If it weren’t for CARE, Bif Naked, the study’s first and most high-profile patient, says she would have had difficulty getting out of bed every day.

The Canadian rocker, known offstage as Beth Torbert, announced her breast cancer in a January 2008 interview with the CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos.

“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer it came as a big surprise to me,” she says. “And had this not been in place for me, I wouldn’t have done anything. I would have probably just stayed in bed the whole time.”

Seventeen women have finished the program at UBC, and another 25 are currently involved. In all, 300 women will take part at the three universities.

For graduates of the UBC trial, their three-day-a-week exercise regimen has evolved into a weekly morning walking group, though Torbert jokes that she and her friends see it more as a gang.

“It’s really fascinating, psychologically and emotionally, how integral this group of people became to each other in very unusual circumstances,” she says. “It’s not that we cried together; we laughed together”.

“It’s probably somewhat unheard of for anyone to have a grand old time during breast cancer treatment, especially during chemotherapy, but I assure you, we have a riot.”

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Last reviewed 01-Feb-2009

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