Cancer treatment can leave patients exhausted, affecting their quality of life, so a new program at Greenville Health System hopes to find ways to combat that fatigue and enhance life for survivors.
The Human Performance Laboratory at GHS’s Cancer Institute will examine cardiorespiratory health, muscular strength and other gauges of fitness in hopes of finding ways to reduce the fatigue associated with chemotherapy, much like drugs are used to counter the nausea, officials said.
“By determining how exercise affects survivors’ health and outcomes, we can develop new cancer management techniques that will help patients overcome the crippling fatigue that too often accompanies cancer treatment,” said Dr. Larry Gluck, the institute’s medical director.
“It’s not enough to survive,” he said. “You have to feel like you’re actually living a life.”
The lab, which is a collaboration between GHS and the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville, is now involved in a pilot study, but could see up to 300 patients its first year, officials said. It is expected to open in January, and while it will target cancer survivors initially, it will serve all patient populations eventually.
GHS, its Office of Philanthropy and Partnership, and the medical school shared the $150,000 cost of the lab equipment, officials said.
Although there are similar labs at medical facilities around the country, GHS officials said theirs will be the first to be “fully embedded into a cancer research and treatment program.”
Research shows that physical activity may reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and mortality, officials said.
“We can now say with confidence that exercise is an important therapy in cancer survivors in addition to chemotherapy or hormonal treatments,” said Jennifer Trilk, lab director and clinical assistant professor at the medical school.
“In addition, preliminary research demonstrates that exercise may protect against, as well as reverse, some of the muscle wasting that occurs as a result of cancer therapy.”
GHS opened another program last summer called “Moving On” that offers cancer survivors rehabilitation along with yoga, acupuncture and other integrative therapies.
“Thanks to advances in more complete cancer care, we now use oncology rehabilitation for cancer survivors the same way we use cardiac rehabilitation for heart patients,” said Dr. Mark O’Rourke, medical director of GHS’s Center for Integrative Oncology and Survivorship.
Along with medical students, Trilk will monitor the effects of exercise on cancer patients who have been through the Moving On program using near-infrared spectroscopy, which measures muscle health and function at the cellular level, to study mitochondria, which convert food into power for muscle and brain cells, officials said.
Damaged mitochondria cause the muscle and brain cells to malfunction, resulting in both physical and mental fatigue along with cognitive impairment called chemo brain, officials said. Gluck said the research may lead to a better understanding of the issue.
The researchers also will look at cardiorespiratory and metabolic fitness, as well as using dual X-ray absorptiometry to get detailed information about muscle and fat content and location, officials said. This is the first time this technology will be used to investigate mitochondrial function in cancer patients, they said.
“We want to crack the mystery of this entire process, and the Human Performance Lab will enable us to take the analysis to a much higher level than ever before,” said nurse practitioner Regina Franco, manager of the Center for Integrative Oncology and Survivorship as well as a breast cancer survivor.
“By combining disciplines and expertise, our team will not only help our own patients,” she said, “but we hope pave the way toward development of a new worldwide standard that will have a significant impact on survivorship.”