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How exercise improves quality of life for one cancer patient

Note: This post is written by the team of The ONE Group (Oncology – Nutrition – Exercise) at Penn State College of Medicine as part of a first-person blog about their work. Learn more about the group here.

This month’s blog post was written by a patient.

My name is Gerald Fox. I am a 58-year-old male from the northeastern part of the United States. My journey started back in March 2020. My wife and I were with several friends, vacationing in the mountains of central Pennsylvania for an extended weekend. I’ve always been a bit of an outdoors and exercise enthusiast so it was only natural for me to go for a 5-mile run on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. This is something that I had been doing for the last 20 years. It felt great to get outdoors and to breathe the fresh air, to exert myself, and to ultimately feel good, even though I knew that I would be physically exhausted afterwards.

After returning to our cabin, I sat down to rest when I casually started to rub my neck and found a lump on the left side. I checked the other side of my neck and found nothing. “That’s a bit strange,” I thought. I wasn’t too worried about it but I decided to call the doctor just to be safe. My doctor immediately sent me to the hospital for some tests. Within the hour I was told that they suspected that I had lymphoma.

Eventually I was formally diagnosed with follicular lymphoma and went through six months of Gazyva and Bendeka chemotherapy. My body handled that regimen of chemo very well and I continued to stay active. My employment status remained the same, I maintained my ability to perform the demands of owning a home and property, and I continued to run 3 to 5 miles per week. Obviously, I did these things because I had responsibilities as an adult and I was still capable of doing them physically, but I had ulterior motives as well.

Staying active and engaged in life has a stimulating and energizing effect on my mind and body. Physical activity breathes life into my body, which in turn stimulates feelings of self-worth and purpose. I don’t know how it works for everybody, but for me, when I shut down physically, I tend to become mentally stagnant. I believe that there is a direct connection between our body and our soul. I stay active physically for a reason. It makes me feel healthy physically and clears my mind mentally.

So, back to my story. Fast forward to September 2020. I had a CT scan after my first round of chemo and it showed that my follicular lymphoma had morphed into diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. Not good! So, back to the drawing board. Another five months of chemo, this time the regimen was called R-CHOP. This time the lymphoma, and probably the chemo, did take more of a toll on my body.

I was not able to continue working full days at my job and I was also told by the doctors that I could not run anymore because some weakness had developed in my spine from the cancer. Since I was not working full days, I had some time on my hands. I started to walk 2-3 miles every day even during the winter months.

Doing this breathes a sense of purpose and worth into my soul. Plus, I was convinced that walking every day was beneficial to me physically as well. It cleared my lungs and stimulated blood flow. I didn’t always do it because some days I just didn’t have the energy but I usually at least tried. There were days that I only went a quarter mile and had to turn back because I didn’t have the energy. There were days that I went a mile and then turned back.

Unfortunately, the R-CHOP did not work so I went through 3 rounds of methotrexate, and then was scheduled for an allogeneic stem cell transplant. That is when the opportunity arose to take part in the IMPROVE-BMT exercise research study at Penn State. I was thrilled to be a participant because I knew that it would be beneficial to me to be part of something bigger than me. I am a fairly self-motivated person but I also knew that the stem cell transplant was going to be a very rigorous process. To be part of a study was not only a motivating factor for me but it was also an accountability platform.

These are some of the things that can inspire us to do things even when we don’t feel like doing them. If I know that I could be helping someone in the future by my participation, the answer is obvious. Plus, I get the perks of exercise and the accountability that I need to stay consistent in my commitment.

I am still on my cancer journey and I have no idea of how it will end or when it will end. Does exercise and activity “cure” the cancer? I don’t think so, but I am convinced that it makes the body stronger so that it can better sustain the daily assaults of the disease and the medications. That in turn provides better quality of life, which in turn enhances mental fortitude and peace.

A lady once told me after I was diagnosed with cancer, “Live while you are living, and don’t die till you’re dead.” I like that saying because I believe that as long as we have been granted the blessing of being on this earth, it is in our best interest and in the best interest of others, to be a positive influence to those around us. How can we do that if we just give up while we are still alive?

We can’t always feel good, both mentally and physically, but I believe that our disposition in the midst of our life’s journey, whether we have cancer or not, goes a long way towards who we are and who we will become as a person.

We have been created for so much more. Get up, get your blood flowing, breathe life into your soul! Then get out, look around, and be a blessing to others. It is in blessing others that we are blessed. Exercise isn’t a magic potion but I do believe that it is a great start in the right direction.

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