Exercise = hope

I stood in the middle of the weight room at the gym staring at the man standing next to my father.   Some  50-something, buff, athletic trainer had a hand on my Dad’s back for support.    This was a shock to me.  My “Daddy”, the independent, energizer bunny, workaholic executive with a hot temper, not known for affection, looked like he was being held upright by some guy at the gym!  There he was sitting on a bench, slowly trying to finish 10 reps of a simple exercise.  And he needed someone to stand with him while he expended so much effort.

Thirty four years ago when I became an oncology nurse it was believed that people getting treatment for cancer should rest.  Sit on the couch.  Take naps.  Exercise was out of the question.  It might tire them out.  And then along came that Buckeye exercise physiologist turned nurse, Dr. Maryl  Winningham.  Maryl had the audacity to hypothesize and support through research findings that exercise might actually help cancer patients feel better, and less tired.  It was CRAZY.  She pulled the “go lie down and rest rug” right out from under our nurse feet.  She changed the way we thought about activity for cancer survivors.

Maryl and other nurse researchers went on to discover other effects of exercise on cancer survivors…it decreased nausea, depression, fatigue and improved sleep (MacVicar, Winningham & Nickel, 1989; Winningham, et al., 1994).  It was a key intervention nurses could suggest to their patients and one that could be specifically prescribed by physical therapists such as our colleagues at the James Cancer Exercise Program*.  Moving around was good.  Sitting on the couch all day was not necessarily ideal.

One day my Dad called to say his kidney cancer had returned and was now in his lungs and liver.  He wanted me to know that despite this, he was ok. He also stated he was still working out with his trainer, four days a week.  When I visited a few weeks later to see my Dad I had the chance to watch him workout.  As I observed, I realized my Dad was dying but exercise was keeping him alive. It was clear he was not going down without a fight.  Getting the exercise helped him continue to assert himself as active and capable despite the diagnosis of cancer.   Sure, he wasn’t running miles and miles but he was maintaining the function he still had and leaving the gym happy.  I think Maryl would have been proud.


*Consider a referral to the James Cancer Exercise Program – The James Cancer Exercise Program is run by our oncology rehabilitation department and begins with a referral to physical therapy for the James Cancer Exercise Program.  The physical therapist then meets with the cancer survivor to assess the patient and design a safe exercise program that can be carried out at home, whenever possible.  Special needs and activity limitation are taken into account in a way that can only be provided by a physical therapist.  The visit can be submitted to insurance. 



MacVicar, M.G., Winningham, M.L., Nickel, J.L.  (1989).  Effects of aerobic interval training on cancer patients’ functional capacity.  Nursing research, 38(6), 348-351.

Winningham, M.L., Nail, L.M., Barton Burke, M., Brophy, L., Cimprich, B., Jones, L.S., Pickard-Holley, S., Rhodes, V., St. Pierre, B., Beck, S., Glass, E.C., Mock, V., Mooney, K.H., Piper, B. (1994).  Fatigue and the cancer experience:  The State of Knowledge.  Oncology Nursing Forum, 21 (1), 23-36.