The retired bilingual teacher was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in February 2019. At her family’s urging, she traveled from her Austin, Texas home to seek a second opinion at MD Anderson. Here, she met with a multidisciplinary team of experts who recommended a treatment plan involving chemotherapy, a mastectomy and radiation therapy.
Between side effects from the cancer and treatment, Debbie was using a walker and supplementary oxygen daily by the time she completed breast cancer treatment in March 2020.
“My energy felt sapped, the lowest it has ever been,” Debbie says. “If I attempted to do anything physical, I would find myself needing to rest the next day. I wanted to do things, but my body was unable to keep up.”
A physical activity program designed for cancer survivors
Eventually, Debbie was able to stop using additional oxygen, but she tired easily and found herself exhausted by cleaning up the kitchen and other household chores. That’s when she heard about Active Living After Cancer.
The free 12-week program is offered online through community organizations. It gives cancer survivors a virtual support group-like atmosphere as they learn how to increase their physical activity, build healthier habits and cope with the challenges of survivorship. MD Anderson researcher Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., recently published a paper in Cancer that showed the program successfully improves physical functioning, physical activity and health-related quality of life for participants.
When Debbie enrolled, she wasn’t sure what to expect or how much she’d be able to do, but the facilitator for her group said that even starting small could have a big impact.
“When I learned that exercise would help keep my cancer away and improve my lungs, I was sold!” Debbie says. “But I still wasn’t sure how I was supposed to exercise if I didn’t have any energy.”
Yadi, the group facilitator, told her to start with two minutes of exercise a day. “I thought that was rather odd. What could two minutes possibly do?” Debbie recalls. But she listened and set a timer. Before she knew it, two minutes a day slowly crept up to 10 minutes, then 10 minutes turned into 20 minutes.
Gaining the tools to maintain a healthy lifestyle
Each week, Debbie’s Active Living After Cancer group would meet online to learn a new exercise and behavioral skill, and to share their experiences with each other. The group gave Debbie something she couldn’t get from family or friends or a traditional exercise class: a sisterhood of survivors who understood the joys and struggles of life after cancer.
“The camaraderie of talking to other cancer survivors really helped because they understood what I was going through,” Debbie says. “The motivation Yadi gave us also helped. She wouldn’t push us, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer either.”
By the end of the program, Debbie was taking daily walks around the neighborhood with her dog as a warmup to home exercise videos. She enrolled in a group exercise class at her gym and began to improve her diet as well. The goal-setting and resiliency skills she learned over the 12-week course – plus a continued group text chat with her friends from the program – have helped her keep up the healthy lifestyle changes since she finished the program in July.
While Debbie is now free from breast cancer, during treatment, her doctors found a papillary thyroid tumor. It’s not growing quickly or causing side effects, so her care team is monitoring it, but Debbie feels prepared to face it if the situation changes.
“If I do need to get surgery for my thyroid tumor, I’m stronger now to do that,” she says. “I feel so much better and my confidence is higher. I definitely have more energy now than I did a year ago.”