Raising Heart Rates and Spirits for Cancer Patients

For cancer patients, sometimes a necessary course of treatment is a healthy dose of cardio. 

Alice King, who is battling stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, couldn’t agree more. A local Washington Heights resident, King was walking her dog one weekend last year when she came across signs promoting CancerFIT, a free exercise class at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) tailored to cancer patients and survivors. As someone who firmly believes that physical activity is a key part of getting through cancer, King jumped on the opportunity to take a CancerFIT class.

“Having cancer, you just really have to keep moving,” says King. “CancerFIT classes are a way of doing that in a safe space with like-minded people, and with instructors who are paying attention to everyone as an individual. We are all getting something out of it and doing the exercises the right way and for our skill level.” 

She adds, “It’s important for us to not think of ourselves as sick … and to keep our heart rates up.”

CancerFIT was founded by Barbara Trencher, a breast cancer survivor, and Sarah Urke, who lost her father to cancer. Trencher and Urke met while earning their doctorate degrees in physical therapy from Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physician and Surgeons. At the time, both were motivated to start an evidence-based exercise class geared towards cancer patients and survivors with the goal of countering emotional and physical stresses patients undergo while in treatment and beyond.

“There is clear data and ongoing research that supports the benefits of exercise. It counters such things for cancer patients as cancer-related fatigue, depression, and anxiety,” says Trencher. “With CancerFIT, we’re providing a service that we think should be an integral part of every patient’s cancer care—a data-driven exercise program that directly links to better patient outcomes.”

The co-founders rolled out CancerFIT at Columbia in the fall of 2018. The classes are a combination of high-intensity aerobics, stretching, and strength-training, led by Columbia physical therapy graduate students who help with modifications during the course of the class. CancerFIT is currently held weekly on Friday mornings at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, 627 W. 165th St. on the second floor of the service building, with additional classes and locations expected in the summer and fall.

The free exercise program offers more than a physical workout, it also provides much-needed support and inspiration for cancer patients and survivors.

“The classes really serve as an organic support group,” says Trencher. “Participants feel safe working out with other patients who are going through the same experiences–that piece of CancerFIT is important. It is a different kind of support group that can be really meaningful.”

Taking the class “helps me feel like I’m in control of what it is I can do for myself,” adds King. “It’s very positive and uplifting and makes a huge difference in how I feel.”