How Joining the Running & Marathon Team Led to Cancer Rehabilitation Research

uvmmedicine blogger Marie Lemay '17
uvmmedicine blogger Marie Lemay ’17

As a newly minted first year medical student, I remember passing by “the marathon team” sign-up at the student interest group fair and feigning disinterest. Marathon? I’m not doing one of those! It took my love of running, a second go-round at the fair, and much cajoling from the current captain, before I actually signed my name to the listserv. Thankfully, the general information meeting dispelled any notions that running an entire marathon was required. Aptly named the UVM COM running AND marathon team, this student interest group’s mission to promote unity and wellness amongst our first year class and greater COM community resonated with me. Moreover, I was happy that the the team’s fundraising efforts aligned well with this goal to create community and foster healthy lifestyles. The team supports Steps to Wellness, a oncology rehabilitation and research program from the Vermont Cancer Center  that provides a pathway toward improved fitness and quality of life for patients after cancer therapy.

After learning more about the team and its mission, I was sold and consequently applied for a captain position. Despite assuming this role along with three other delightful co-captains, I didn’t fully appreciate the Steps to Wellness program until a panel of its participants and physicians spoke to the team. It is a 12-week, bi-weekly, supervised exercise program tailored to the needs of cancer patients battling post-treatment sequelae like fatigue and weakness. Additionally, many of the cancer survivors at the panel spoke to the overwhelmingly positive influence this program had on their motivation and ability to regain strength and confidence.

These personal anecdotes, along with a working knowledge of the program, helped me realize the need for further research. Although Steps to Wellness is free for cancer survivors, insurance does not cover these services as is the case for cardiac rehab. A continuing goal for this program, then, is to collect the data needed to justify this insurance coverage. I also discovered that Steps to Wellness lends itself well to research. Once participants’ receive a physical therapy evaluation, a medical assessment, and an individualized exercise prescription, progression through the program is tracked and ultimately collected in a database used to evaluate and improve the rehabilitation program. With guidance from two dedicated Steps to Wellness physicians, I investigated potential areas of research, focusing on the oncology rehabilitation database. I started by exploringhow this data – which assesses particular physiologic and psychological measures of the participants – changed over the course of the program. Amidst proposing a hypothesis, I shadowed the physicians, the physical therapists, and the exercise technicians responsible for running the program so I could gain a better understanding of the whole process. I eventually decided to investigate the role exercise-self efficacy, or one’s belief in the ability to exercise, has when it comes to participants’ success in the program. This is something that hasn’t been directly studied in cancer populations, so I spent the summer analyzing pertinent data and interviewing current Steps to Wellness participants, hoping to combine statistics and personal anecdotes into the story of my research. I particularly enjoyed hearing the participants’ unique situations and motivations to complete the program, and was happy to report back that my own regard for exercise had led me to this present role of researcher. It has been a journey from relunctant “marathon” team member to researcher, but I am excited to contribute to such a worthwhile cause, and help better understand how patients benefit from Steps to Wellness.

Marie Lemay ’17 will be presenting a poster on her research at the Vermont Cancer Center Breast Cancer Conference October 10. Read more about the conference  

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