Band of Sisters

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

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

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.”

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.”