Imagine being diagnosed with cancer. Now imagine being nauseated and fatigued from chemotherapy. You probably want to curl up in a ball, and rest. Snuggle with the cat, maybe, and watch Seinfeld re-runs. Staying active might not sound appealing.
But it could be the X factor between surviving and thriving — according to Dr. Fran Mason, M.D., board-certified medical oncologist and triathlete extraordinaire, who recently joined the Kootenai Cancer Center in Sandpoint, Idaho.
A nationally recognized expert in fitness and exercise, particularly as it relates to cancer survivorship, Mason will tell you that exercising and eating right are ancillary combatants on the road to recovery.
Not that she throws patients on a stationary bike, and tells them to pedal like hell for an hour.
“I’m in the business of complementary, as opposed to alternative,” she distinguishes. “Meaning you go with the established gold standard of medical care, but also take on other forms of treatment that can make the care go better for you.”
Mason is head of a program called the FORCE — not the kind Yoda uses, but an integrative physical therapy agenda, designed to work in tandem with what the doctor prescribed.
Implemented in New York back in 1996, the FORCE program was developed in consultation with exercise physiologists, nutritionists, stress management professionals and oncologists. It encompasses three basic fundamentals: exercise, stress management, and nutrition.
The regimen ranges from meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing techniques, to recommended medicinal herbs and even “the daily hug.” It also designates a list of aerobic activities, strength-training exercises and meal planning that best support various types of cancers and treatments.
The standard medical community, Dr. Mason believes, is preoccupied with the ‘war on cancer’ mentality. “To the point where we, as a medical establishment, often neglect the patient, and our role in helping to empower them to make decisions that can actually make the treatments go better,” she says.
Back in 2001, Dr. Mason authored a book called The FORCE Program. It explains that physical activity has become a part of the treatment of almost every major disease, save one — cancer.
The book cites Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a senior flight surgeon and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, who, in the 1960s, advocated for preventative medicine through vigorous exercise and proper diet, particularly as it pertained to cardiac patients.
Irrefutably mainstream today, Cooper’s concepts were scoffed at initially.
“At the time, the standard treatment for those who had suffered a heart attack was a soft chair, a comfy couch, and a quiet, sedentary life,” the book states. “Now, people who have heart attacks are given an exercise prescription when they leave the cardiac care unit.”
Dr. Mason is more or less the 21st-century version of Dr. Cooper.
“The literature says that when people go through treatments, radiation and hormonal therapy, they’re probably going to lose 25 percent of their cardiorespiratory capacity,” explains Joanne Henritze, a clinical exercise physiologist at the Boulder Center for Cancer Survivorship, and longtime associate of Dr. Mason. “So lots of lives are being saved, but treatment makes you debilitated.” She mentions the phrase, “cancer couch potatoes.”
The ultimate goal is to preserve basic functions and muscle mass, so patients can comfortably coexist with the treatment. This way, they’ll also be at a neutral point come recovery — instead of ground zero.
Many cancer drugs, for example, can cause neuropathy. Exercises that strengthen balance are used to address this. Chemotherapy, additionally, can wreak havoc on the heart muscle, so a carefully monitored cardiovascular workout is often prescribed.
People become so weak, Henritze says, that simple tasks like using the bathroom or just getting off the couch can be a hurdle.
“Working away, little by little, the medical research is being done to actually give some scientific support to what intuitively makes sense,” says Dr. Mason.
She recalls a time one of her patients made three attempts to breach a steep hill on a bike, finally succeeding on the fourth.
“Lance Armstrong isn’t the only one,” she adds. “It happens all the time.”
Still, principles outlined in the FORCE program aren’t entirely common. Henritze says most traditional oncologists tend to spend their time reading up on the best chemotherapies. “They’re not as in tune to the quality of life as they are saving life,” she says. “Both are important, but more people are demanding quality of life.”
Granted, eating bananas and doing Pilates won’t substitute for medical intervention. But knowing how to cope with the stress and adhering to a specialized exercise and nutrition plan may be key.
“Research shows that supervised exercise prevents recurrences fairly significantly,” says Henritze. “There are very important treatments, and they have downsides — but we can help those downsides if we can get people to do the right thing.”