The Best Medicine for Young Cancer Survivors

With overall survival rates near 80 percent, doctors put the focus on post-cancer fitness.

In the coming year, a child will be diagnosed with cancer on average every 39 minutes in the United States. The good news is, the overall survival rate for those kids is close to 80 percent, which is an all-time high. The bad news is, going through cancer treatment takes a toll on their bodies, often leaving these children much heavier and weaker than before.

"Some of our patients diagnosed with cancer will have up to 100 days of treatment-related visits, including both inpatient stays and outpatient visits," said Randal Olshefski, M.D., chief of the Section of Hematology/Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplantation at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. "That can lead to a great deal of time in bed, which means less time involved in normal physical activities. And when their therapy is over, the kids may have the heart and the mind to get back into physical activity, but sometimes their bodies just aren't ready," he said.

So, in an effort to get those children back into shape following their treatment, Nationwide Children's Hospital is one of just a few in the U.S. to offer exercise programs specifically designed for kids who overcome cancer.

"The aim is to get these young cancer survivors back to physical activity, and, if we can, help make them stronger and more coordinated than they were before," said Travis Gallagher, ATC, a certified athletic trainer in Sports Medicine at Nationwide Children's. "It used to be that we were only focused on curing the disease, but because our survival rates are so much better, we can now think about life after cancer and getting these kids active again," he said.

It's called the Play Strong program, a collaborative effort between the Oncology and Sports Medicine teams at Nationwide Children's that actually began with a phone call and a simple question.

"The mother of one of our patients contacted us one day and said her daughter was now off treatment, but wasn't able to keep up with her friends and felt very restricted," said Gallagher. "So, we decided to create this program to help those kids get back to normal activities."

Twelve-year-old Ryan Hardy is one of those kids. First diagnosed with a brain tumor, then with leukemia, Ryan underwent years of treatment involving surgery, chemotherapy and the use of steroids. While the therapies were successful in treating his cancers, they took their toll.

"He went from 60 pounds to almost 120 from the steroid use alone," said Ryan's mother Laurie. "That was really tough for him."

After getting a clean bill of health from his doctor, Ryan signed up for an eight-week series of workouts through the Play Strong program. Once they evaluated his physical abilities and fitness level, athletic trainers then devised a personalized program to help get Ryan back into shape.

"Based on their deficits, we tailor our workouts to the individual patients themselves," said Gallagher. "Then we start off slow, and gradually build not only their strength and balance, but their confidence as well. Along the way, we incorporate fun and games to make the process more enjoyable."

In a matter of weeks, Ryan and his family noticed a dramatic difference. "I can do a lot more than I used to do," Ryan said. "I'm hoping by the end of this, I'm back to running and playing football and basketball with my friends."

"It's made a big difference in just his core strength," said Laurie. "Just recently I noticed that he was outside playing with four or five neighbor boys, and he wasn't falling down," she said. "That is a big change. I was just like, 'Wow. He is actually out there playing basketball.' It's just great."

The Play Strong program is one of just a few post-cancer fitness programs in the country, and is often covered by insurance.

Courtesy of Nationwide Children's Hospital

Originally featured on Nationwide Children's ( and reprinted with permission. Copyright ? 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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