University of Vermont

College of Medicine

Vermont Medicine Magazine

Cancer Patients Share Steps to Wellness Experience with Marathon Team Members

Dr. Patricia O'Brien and Steps to Wellness panelists
Patricia O'Brien, M.D., UVM assistant professor of medicine and co-director of the Steps to Wellness program, responds to a question at a January 27, 2014 panel discussion for UVM College of Medicine Marathon Team members. (Photo: Sarah Keblin)

Cancer can stop people in their tracks. Debilitating surgery and treatments can severely diminish energy and strength, making even the simplest tasks difficult to perform. But exercise can change that, especially when it’s clinician-prescribed and supervised. That’s the premise behind “Steps to Wellness,” a Vermont Cancer Center oncology rehabilitation program supported through funds raised in part by University of Vermont College of Medicine Marathon Team participants.  

Medical students on the 2014 Marathon Team heard from current and past Steps to Wellness participants during a lunchtime panel discussion held January 27 in the Reardon Classroom in the College’s Medical Education Center. The experience helped students better understand the beneficiaries of their fundraising efforts, as well as get an insider’s perspective on life as a cancer patient.

Launched in 2011, Steps to Wellness provides participants with a physical therapy evaluation, medical assessment, individualized exercise prescription, and education. The program is tailored to each patient’s needs – patients get individualized oncology/hematology rehabilitation services and recommendations for exercise at each stage of the cancer survivor journey. Patricia O’Brien, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, and Kim Dittus, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine, co-direct the program.

Getting to Steps to Wellness is an accomplishment in itself. Patients have to be strong enough to tolerate the evaluation. One panelist, who joined Steps to Wellness in November 2013, said “climbing stairs and getting in and out of a car were very difficult” following surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Once in the program, 15 minutes on the treadmill was an accomplishment. Now she’s walking for 35 minutes and doing the elliptical. “I’m finding it a very supportive, positive experience,” she said.

All of the panelists agreed that the social piece of the program – going to a gym and seeing other cancer patients working towards gaining strength and endurance – is an important part of their success. “It pushes you,” said one panelist, adding that “you feel you’re not alone; they know what you’re going through and you don’t have to explain.” Another shared that “there’s all kinds of people there, but I’m not competing with 18-year-olds doing a marathon!”

Co-directors Dittus and O’Brien explained that the 12-week program is designed to help patients make lifestyle changes that they can sustain after completing Steps to Wellness. Patients have an option to continue to use the gym, which is shared with Fletcher Allen’s cardiac rehabilitation program at Tilley Drive in South Burlington, Vt., for $25 per month, a fee that can be subsidized. Other community programs, including the Greater Burlington Y’s Livestrong Program, and classes offered through Dragonheart Vermont, are also available.

While encouraged by the program's success stories, Steps to Wellness faces a major barrier – insurance only covers the physical therapy and physician evaluations at the start of the program, but not the bulk of the program’s services, including trainer Rebecca Reynolds, who teaches patients how to safely use equipment, conducts regular assessments, and provides new exercises as the patient progresses. That’s why the funds raised by the UVM College of Medicine Marathon Team, who will run in the annual Vermont City Marathon in May, are so critical.

According to one panelist, participating in Steps to Wellness is like being on an elevator going up. “I’m more confident, doing more and still expanding my horizons, mostly due to this program,” he said.

Learn more about Steps to Wellness and how you can support the UVM College of Medicine Marathon Team.