Strong Survivors: Cancer rehabilitation program provides better lives for all involved


Jodee Harmon | @jlharmonphotography

Jamie Brolick assists Strong Survivor participant, Becky Clay, as she lifts weights in the Aerobics and Weight Training Center on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019 at John A. Logan. Brolick actively volunteers in the program in order to help cancer survivors regain their strength.

By Adam Warfel, Sports Editor

The Strong Survivors Program means so much more than giving cancer patients in the Southern Illinois area a place for rehabilitation.

Philip Anton, founder and director of the program, said that his tight-knit relationship with his cousin Julie inspired him to launch the program.

“We were kind of like two peas in a pod,” Anton said.

When the pair were teenagers, Julie was diagnosed with cancer in her right leg and began a five year battle. 


“Her immune system [became] so ravaged, especially by the chemotherapy, that she got an infection and went into septic shock and fell into a coma,” Anton said.

Anton drove down from the school he was attending so he could be with Julie when she passed away.

“She was easily the bravest person, just tough, and I thought [I] need to do everything that I can do with my life,” Anton said. “I wanted to do something with my life to honor her memory.”

Upon finishing his master’s degree at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Anton said he realized he wanted to teach but looked towards other universities to advance his education.

”I participated in some cancer related stuff [while there] – Relay for Life, Race for the Cure and never really felt like I was doing enough,” Anton said.

Anton decided to continue his education at University of Northern Colorado, working towards his doctorate. While at UNC, Anton was paired with Dr. Carolyn Dennehy as a mentor for his dissertation.

“She [asked me] what direction I wanted to go research-wise,” Anton said. “I didn’t give her a satisfactory answer, so she finally asked, ‘Have you ever heard of cancer rehab?’”


Dennehy told Anton about the Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute, which had recently been established at Northern Colorado.

“Basically what [it does] is use exercise as a therapeutic tool to help cancer survivors get through their treatment and recovery period,” Anton said.

Anton said he was excited to learn about the program because it gave him the opportunity to use exercise to help people like his cousin, Julie. When Anton came to SIU, he established a similar program to help residents of the southern Illinois area.

“I took their model with their permission and I brought it here to SIU,” Anton said.

Bringing students into the program

One of the core parts of the program Anton implemented at the university was having student staff members work with program participants.

Sam Cohen, a senior studying exercise science, is one of the student staff members working in the Strong Survivors program. He said first heard of the program in one of Anton’s classes.

“I had Dr. Anton in a class and my mom knows him,” Cohen said. “[My mom] said ‘Hey, you should look into this,’ and I’ve had a history of cancer in my family, so I was like, ‘Oh I’d be interested in doing that.’”

Fran Benson, one of the participants in the program, said she first heard of Strong Survivors in the newspaper around 2006.

“My first episode of cancer was in 1979, I had it again in 2002, but much more serious,” Benson said. “A few years after that was when I read about this program, so I attended the second class they had and I really felt it was helpful.”

The program now has two locations – one at John A. Logan and one at the SIUC Cancer Rehabilitation Laboratory.

“We have been advertising in oncology offices ever since we started the program back in 2004,” Anton said. “I would say 60 to 70 percent of the participants we have had have come to us via word of mouth.”

Benson agreed the community support of this cancer rehabilitation program is overall very positive, especially among the participants.

“Of course the people I associate with are in the program, we’re supportive of each other, we’re glad we get to know each other, plus I think it’s just helped everybody that’s participated in it,” Benson said.

Local partnerships

Anton also recognized Southern Illinois Healthcare’s willingness to support this program has helped build assurance of the program in southern Illinois.

He said before SIH began supporting the program, he struggled to recruit new participants from oncology offices.

“When I went back into those offices with the letters SIH above my head, it definitely helped to get more participants in the program,” Anton said.

Cohen recommended this opportunity students have to get involved in Strong Survivors program, not just as something to put on your resume, but to build interpersonal skills.

Currently within the program, both at the John A. Logan class in Carterville and the program at SIU, new participants within the last year sit at around 60 people.

Cohen has seen the participants he has worked with over the past two years change throughout their time in the program.

“When I do their first assessment, they’re usually not as outgoing, so week by week you can see them kind of open up more,” Cohen said.

Looking back at what he’s been able to put together in the Strong Survivors program here at SIU since 2004, and remembering his cousin Julie, Anton thinks there are still things to be done.

“We could do a better job of getting people involved here in this region of southern Illinois,” Anton said.

Looking ahead

The program is trying to raise money with the intent of moving into the Motor Behavior Lab, which is currently unused, to further expand the program’s abilities.

Anton hopes with the money raised during the SIU Day of Giving on March 6, the lab will able to move into that space and rename it in honor of Julie.

“One of the things I’d really like to see is that space be named the Julie A. Honerkamp Cancer Rehabilitation Lab, or something to that effect,” Anton said. “Something that would be a permanent honoring of her bravery, toughness, her legacy, and what that has engendered here in southern Illinois as far as Strong Survivors goes.”

For more information on the Strong Survivors program, please visit the program website at

Sports editor Adam Warfel can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @warfel_adam.

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