Southern Illinois program helps cancer survivors through exercise

By Thomas Donley, @tdonleyDE

Room 132 in Davies Hall is a place for cancer survivors to strengthen their lives.

The room was originally a locker room before SIU Arena was built. Lockers and benches have been replaced by treadmills and dumbbells that Strong Survivors program participants use to rehabilitate their bodies.

Philip Anton, associate professor in the department of kinesiology, helped start the Strong Survivors program in 2005 with Chris Georgantas and Jerry Bechtel of John A. Logan College and Southern Illinois Healthcare.


The program consists of a 12-week class teaching proper nutrition to people with all types of cancer and the development of an exercise regimen to improve quality of life through fitness.

The class is held at JALC, but participants can use the Davies facility or exercise at home. Anton trains SIUC students who are then assigned to participants as personal trainers for the class.

Strong Survivors is patterned after the Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute at Northern Colorado University, where Anton worked on his Ph.D. until his wife, Julie Partridge, began working at SIUC.

Anton’s cousin Julie Honerkamp died at 19 after a five-year battle with cancer. Her death inspired Anton to devote his life’s work to cancer rehabilitation.

Dr. Carolyn Dennehy, a cofounder of Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehab, first turned Anton on to the idea of exercise as a therapeutic tool for cancer survivors.

“I did Relay for Life and Race for the Cure and things like that, but I never really felt like I was doing enough to honor [Honerkamp’s] memory,” Anton said. “I thought, ‘This is perfect,’ because I was really into exercise. I was going to get a Ph.D. in exercise science. And then I thought I could help people going through cancer at the same time. It was like one of those moments where all the planets were aligning. All the light bulbs were coming on.”

Once in Carbondale, Anton discovered Bechtel and Georgantas had similar interests to him and had also recently traveled to Greeley, Colo., to meet with Carole Schneider, another co-founder of RCMI.

Bechtel and Georgantas planned to teach classes on post-cancer nutrition and give participants step counters to monitor their exercise. Anton offered his expertise in exercise and his access to SIUC students to develop more comprehensive exercise programs.

Southern Illinois Healthcare, which received a grant from the Lance Armstrong Foundation, provided funding for the program.

Participants can use the facilities at JALC and SIUC free of charge any time, even after completion of the 12-week class, when they enter the Survivors Forever phase of the program.

Anton estimates that about 430 people have gone through the program with a 100 percent success rate.

“In all of those situations, they’ve made improvements over their first 12 weeks in at least one of the physiological categories that we test,” Anton said. “They’ve also made improvements in some of the psychological categories like quality of life, fatigue level, exercise enjoyment, their level of social support and overall physical activity level.”

Joe Powers, of Carbondale, found out about Strong Survivors at a Saluki women’s basketball game in the 2013-14 season. He completed the 12-week class last fall.

Powers was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2010 and had surgery later that year. He has been cancer free since then, but said Strong Survivors has improved his health immensely.

“The most challenging part was being open to changing some parts of my lifestyle,” Powers said. “Exercise, for me, is a dirty word. The idea that I would need to get exercise on a regular basis kind of scared me. But I saw an increase in my energy levels because I was getting out and moving.”

Powers said the biggest improvement he saw was in the stability in his back. In his retirement, Powers teaches GED classes in Murphysboro and Du Quoin, and he said standing for extended periods of time during those classes is much easier than before.

Brenda Poston, of Carbondale, learned of the program from a fellow cancer survivor. Poston was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, and has been cancer-free for almost five years.

Poston joined Strong Survivors in 2011. She said she wished she knew about it when she was going through chemotherapy.

“It takes a whole team to fight this terrible, terrible disease,” Poston said. “And I think Strong Survivors is a critical part of that. They helped with my movement and getting my strength back. They actually make you feel like a human again.”

Powers said the nutrition and exercise education are not the only program’s only benefits.

“You get to know people,” Powers said. “As you continue to see them, you develop that sense that you’re part of a team. And it does help to encourage you to come back and see how they’re doing.”

Cooper Springfield, a graduate student in exercise science from Champaign, has been a Strong Survivors trainer for three years. He said the program is rewarding for more than just those cancer survivors it helps.

“It seemed like a good volunteer program to start with,” Springfield said. “But once I started working with the participants, I just found that it’s an instant gratification thing, to see someone getting better because of the exercises you are providing them.”

Thomas Donley can be reached at [email protected] or at 536-3311