Thrive by IU Health

July 13, 2022

Athlete with breast cancer, 27, finds strength through physical therapy

IU Health Simon Cancer Center

Athlete with breast cancer, 27, finds strength through physical therapy

Her body is accustomed to regular workouts and she’s also familiar with the benefits of rehabilitation. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer and her oncologist suggested she begin physical therapy, this 27-year-old didn’t hesitate.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes,

Her great grandmother died of complications from breast cancer. Her grandmother is a survivor. Janai Mitchell does not have an inherited mutation, but with a family history, she was diligent with self exams.

It was during one of those exams that that she discovered a lump in her right breast. In March she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is 27, and has been healthy most of her life. In the care of IU Health’s Dr. Carla Fisher and Dr. Tarah Ballinger she underwent a lumpectomy and has started chemotherapy. She is also part of a unique program that helps in her healing.

The program, called “Multidisciplinary Oncologic Vitality and Exercise (M.O.V.E.) was created by Dr. Ballinger to bring together a group like minded healthcare professionals from various disciplines. The goal is to offer supportive oncology services as part of every patient’s journey through survivorship. Physical therapy is one of those services.

“The benefits of physical therapy and exercise for patients with cancer can touch many aspects of their lives,” said IU Health physical therapist Bryce Showers. “We know that exercise can help reduce side effects such as fatigue, neuropathy, and overall decline in physical function. By meeting with patients like Janai, we want to bring these benefits to light, reduce any fear of exercise while having cancer, and help patients maintain their ability to perform the activities they enjoy and love.”

A long-time resident of Kansas City, Kan., Mitchell played four years of basketball and volleyball in high school. She was a middle hitter on the volleyball court and a center for the basketball team.

“I started playing basketball when I was three because athleticism runs in my family and I’m tall,” said Mitchell, the oldest of four. Basketball became her focus and she received a scholarship to a Kansas City Community College and went on to play four years in Wichita at Friends University. A knee injury caused her to be sidelined. After surgery and recovery she played for Kansas Wesleyan University and graduated in November 2020. The next month she moved to Indianapolis to be closer to family. She works at Azenta Life Sciences as a Regulated Pharmaceutical Technician.

“I moved back to be closer to family, but now that I've been diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s nice to have them close enough to visit me,” said Mitchell. “When my doctor suggested physical therapy after surgery, I was confused at first. I didn’t know how the two correlated, but after my first appointment, I understand the importance of staying active, while doing my treatments,” she said.

During a recent physical therapy session, Showers, demonstrated how to work with resistance bands to develop strength. “As we focus on accessing her functional status we are incorporating exercises that will limit the decline of her treatments,” said Showers, who started with IU Health last November.

Showers is part of a team of rehabilitation clinicians trained to assess, monitor, and treat patients undergoing cancer treatment. According to one study or 163 women with advanced breast cancer, 92 had one or more physical impairments - side effects of the disease and treatment - but fewer than 30 percent received rehabilitation care.

Studies indicate that up to 90 percent of patients treated with radiation therapy and up to 80 percent of those treated with chemotherapy experience fatigue. The National Comprehensive Cancer Center (NCCN) recommends exercise as one of the most effective non-pharmacologic interventions for patients treated for cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends people undergoing cancer treatment, and cancer survivors, perform consistent physical exercise to decrease fatigue, and improve the ability to perform normal daily activities. Studies show that exercise can improve an individual’s chances of surviving cancer. Physical therapists design individualized exercise and treatment programs to reduce or prevent many cancer-related problems.

For Mitchell, who began physical therapy right after surgery, that means regaining and maintaining her strength and dexterity. Showers is focused on helping her build upper extremity strength with exercises she can continue at home.

“As an athlete, I am familiar with PT and the benefits,” said Mitchell. “I walk a lot in my job but the extra workout with PT is a bonus in keeping me active and motivated and I know it will benefit me as I go through treatments.”

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