University of Vermont

College of Medicine

Vermont Cancer Center

Dittus and Steps to Wellness Team Help Cancer Survivors Get Back on their Feet

Steps to Wellness cancer patients
A panel of Steps to Wellness cancer patients meets with medical student members of the College of Medicine Marathon Team. (Photo by Alex Edelman, UVM Medical Photography)

A cancer diagnosis – not to mention the treatments that follow – is physically and emotionally draining, and ideally, patients rely on a support team to get them through the process. Helping cancer survivors regain strength and energy after treatment requires a team effort, too. At the Vermont Cancer Center at the University of Vermont and Fletcher Allen Health Care, that team includes hematologist/oncologist Kim Dittus, M.D., Ph.D., UVM assistant professor of medicine, Patricia O’Brien, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, and Diane Stevens, a Fletcher Allen physical therapist. Together, they deliver a unique oncology/hematology rehab program called Steps to Wellness, a strength and endurance training regimen that uses exercise to get cancer survivors back on track.

“Cancer patients go through so much and cancer therapy can be physically and emotionally challenging, yet rehabilitation services to support this population are not in place,” says Dittus, the medical director of Steps to Wellness.

Dittus says the program fell into place in early 2011, when her colleague and cardiac rehab researcher Philip Ades, M.D., professor of medicine, suggested that oncology rehabilitation use the cardiac rehab facility in South Burlington, Vt., during “down” times. She received initial funding from the Victoria Buffum Fund to support an exercise trainer’s time to carry out the 12-week exercise program provided to cancer survivors. Additional funding came from an appreciative patient, the late Jane S. Lande and her husband Eric Lande.

Though it officially began with breast cancer patients in August 2011, the program has expanded to include all types of cancer patients. Most survivors enter the program after they finish their initial cancer treatment. Each survivor is seen by Dittus or O’Brien, who evaluates late/lingering effects of cancer and assesses medical safety for exercise. They also receive a thorough one-hour evaluation with the physical therapist to determine what deficits might need to be addressed or exercise might need to be modified. Each participant receives 12 weeks of free exercise training under the supervision of the exercise trainers. About four new patients are enrolled each week and beginning in April 2012, participants can train four days each week. From the program’s beginning, UVM undergraduate students studying exercise and movement sciences or athletic training through the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, have assisted with Steps to Wellness participants.

As part of the program, Dittus and the oncology rehab team are collecting data on a wide range of physiological and psychological issues, including strength, aerobic capacity, fatigue, and sleep, during their training. This information will be used to improve the program and bring attention to the need to make oncology rehabilitation a standard of care for all survivors.

Recently, the program has gained a new set of teammates and along with them, a welcome stream of funding. Not only is the UVM College of Medicine Marathon Team fundraising for Steps to Wellness, but so are all of Fletcher Allen’s Marathon Teams, which will be running in Burlington’s Vermont City Marathon on Sunday, May 27, 2012.

On March 15, 2012, medical students from the College of Medicine Marathon Team had an opportunity to hear directly from a panel of Steps to Wellness participants about their experience with cancer, as well as how the exercise training program has impacted their lives. One survivor on the panel said that, after going through cancer treatment, “I needed to reclaim my life and exercise was the best way to do that.”

The Steps to Wellness program and the marathon teams are a natural fit.

“I’m so excited; it’s perfect to have an exercise endeavor supporting an exercise program and I hope the students gain a lot from this experience with patients,” says Dittus.

Learn more about Steps to Wellness. Donate to Steps to Wellness through the UVM Medical Marathon Team or the Fletcher Allen Marathon Teams on the Vermont City Marathon Miles for a Mission page.