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Breast cancer put them at this starting line

Exercise science associate professor Dr. Alex Ng joins with an enthusiastic group of cancer survivors to study the impact of exercise on cancer outcomes.

Not even 100-degree heat could keep these women from pedaling through the sticky air enveloping Marquette’s 
Valley Fields.

They put months of training on the line at the Danskin Triathlon. Throughout it all, Dr. Alex Ng, associate professor 
in the College of Health Sciences, monitored their conditioning in a pilot research study.

The women are Team Phoenix, a group of 25 breast cancer survivors who already endured what Aurora Health Care physical therapist and Cancer Rehabilitation Coordinator Leslie J. Waltke calls the “cancer triathlon”: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

“If you can do that, you can swim, bike and run,” she told them.

Diane Squires of Union Grove, Wis., was up for the challenge. “I’m 48, and I’ve never done anything like this before,” says Squires, who wore a shirt that read, “Yeah, they’re fake. My real ones tried to kill me.”

“I feel very weak after breast cancer, so I’m hoping this will help me get my strength and stamina back,” she says.

But how does training affect cancer survivors physiologically? And what happens after they cross the finish line? That’s what Ng is trying to figure out.

“After treatment, many cancer survivors are told to start exercising, but they may have no idea how to start or maintain a program,” says Ng, who is a cancer survivor and triathlete himself.

Breast cancer surgeon Dr. Judy Tjoe started the donor-funded fitness project, a partnership between Aurora Health Care and Marquette. Tjoe realized a triathlon could get her patients moving again, and the idea was such a hit she soon had a waiting list for Team Phoenix.

Team Phoenix trained at Valley Fields and in the Helfaer Recreation Center pool.

Research shows regular exercise is especially beneficial for cancer survivors, Ng says. It can improve inflammation, immune function and cancer-related fatigue and lead to longer life expectancy. Ng’s study will assess the physical and psychological impact of triathlon training and look at whether it motivates participants 
to stick with an exercise routine after the event.

Ng’s lab tested participants’ oxygen uptake, strength, bone density and other physiological factors, as well as psychological measures related to quality of life and exercise self-efficacy. In addition to testing before and after the August triathlon, Ng and the research team will follow the participants six months and one year after the event. The women will continue wearing accelerometers to track their physical activity. NSE


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