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New Video Series Aims to Help Cancer Patients Exercise at Home

Elizabeth “Betsy” O’Donnell, MD, has two passions in life: medicine and exercise.

Dr. O’Donnell, a medical oncologist, heads the Lifestyle Medicine Clinic at Mass General Cancer Center to counsel cancer patients on the importance of exercise and how it can positively impact their health. And she practices what she preaches, biking to work nine months out of the year, 40 miles each day.

But the Concord mom still wasn’t satisfied with her routine. Her local gym doesn’t open until 5:30 a.m., too late for her to get a workout in before heading to the office. She began exercising in her own home at a more convenient time, sans equipment and membership fees, and experienced significant gains in athletic performance by doing exercise videos.

That’s when she got an idea.

“I realized there are a lot of barriers for my patients exercising, namely the cost of expensive gym memberships since having cancer is a huge financial burden,” says Dr. O’Donnell. “They also don’t want to go to gyms if they’re concerned about infection or exposure. Many people don’t know where to start or what workout would be beneficial for them.”

Gathering research from the American Cancer Society and American College of Sports Medicine, Dr. O’Donnell found concrete data to support that exercise before, during, and after cancer therapy is beneficial—not just for mood, fatigue, and quality of life, but for remission and outcomes. Drawing from her own experience, she wanted to provide an at-home resource tailored to cancer patients to ensure that they could exercise on their own terms. She began applying for grants and discussing fundraising options, which led her to John Steiger, a colon cancer survivor.

“During my own treatments and recovery, exercise gave me energy, increased my appetite, and helped me heal,” Steiger says. “It reduced my pain and completely changed my mood. It made me even more determined to get better. When I learned about Dr. O’Donnell’s vision for videos patients could complete at home, I got excited about the future of cancer treatments.”

Newly inspired by Dr. O’Donnell’s mission, Steiger began fundraising efforts by holding two spin events. Participants generously donated money and raffle prizes to increase ticket purchases. These two events alone helped raise more than $7,000 to get started on the videos.

“Cancer has affected everyone in some way and people are willing to give their time and money to fight it, and improve the care and recovery for patients,” he says.

With a modest filming budget, Dr. O’Donnell was able to assemble a dream team of volunteers: Sasha Knowlton, MD, a physician in rehabilitation medicine; Jessica Garton, a physical therapist specializing in cancer patients; Rachel Millstein, a clinical psychologist; and Lauren Winters, a nurse practitioner in the breast cancer group who is a certified yoga instructor with special certification for cancer patients. Flywheel instructor and Simmons nutritionist, Rachele Pojednic also agreed to lead the workouts on camera free of charge. The team met over the course of a year to develop workouts and cater to unique needs and modifications for all patients. Garton can be seen in each video demonstrating modified versions of the exercises.

“We understand that some cancer patients may have physical limitations and that certain people may not be able to do certain moves,” says Dr. O’Donnell. “That’s why a rehab doctor and physical therapist are ensuring that we have something for everyone, and we present exercises with modifications to help address this.”

While recruiting participants for the shoots, Dr. O’Donnell leapt at the opportunity to include Ironman champion, triathlon legend, and thyroid cancer survivor Karen Smyers. The triathlete remembered the challenges and fear following her diagnosis and was all too happy to help.

“One of the scariest parts of getting cancer for me was this feeling of not being in control of my body,” says Smyers. “I had no idea this potentially deadly disease was growing inside of me. For someone who uses her body to make a living as a professional triathlete, it was a shocking realization. Getting back to exercise and eventual serious training restored my faith in my body.”

Smyers brought along a few friends from her triathlon club, Team Psycho, and was surprised by the intensity of the workouts. “It was really fun, but harder than I expected—probably because I was bold enough to jump right into the advanced session,” she admits. “Everyone was there because they really believed in the cause, so there was a great vibe and energy. I practiced in the exercise-dance session, and ‘Dancing with the Stars’ will not be calling me anytime soon, but I had a blast doing it! It’s nice to do something other than swim, bike, and run.”

Other video participants included breast cancer survivors Leanne Plant and Lindsay Northrop, who experienced their own troubles with exercise during treatment.

“Whether it was due to steroid side effects, dehydration, or whatever else, I was barely able to move from a chair,” says Plant. “My husband would coax me out for a walk, and being outside worked wonders. It changed my mindset from ‘I can’t do this anymore’ to ‘I will make it through this.’”

Northrop also made a point to get out and walk a few miles several times each week. “Not only did it provide physical benefits, but it was a great release from the mental and emotional stress,” the mother of two says. “My doctors encouraged me to be as active as possible and they were thrilled that my blood counts always looked great and that my energy level stayed high.”

Both women were excited to participate in the videos in order to reach patients just like themselves. “I always wanted to help others in any way I could, but I didn’t know how,” says Plant. “This was a way in which I could help those at home struggling and test my own abilities at the same time. The challenge was interesting, emotional, and gratifying for so many reasons.”

Northrop was concerned she wouldn’t be able to keep up with the exercises, but wanted to represent for others who needed encouragement. “I wear a lymphedema sleeve to exercise, and my doctor thought it was important to wear it in the video to demonstrate to others like me that you can have limitations, but still be able to exercise safely and effectively.”

Dr. O’Donnell is thrilled with the outcome of the videos and says the film experience was “like camp,” with all the participants sharing their stories and becoming close friends over the course of the shooting schedule. She hopes these videos will reach the right patients who may have given up hope due to their circumstances.

“The only workouts you regret are the ones you didn’t do,” says Dr. O’Donnell. “You don’t need to go from zero to 60. Know your limits and ease into it. Cancer involves so much loss for people and you may have lost trust in your body. But exercise helps you gain some control over your life again. I’m just trying to help people feel better and empower themselves.”

For more information and to view exercise videos from the Lifestyle Medicine Center, visit massgeneral.org