Dr. Karen Wonders, Ph.D., has made it her goal to advocate for exercise becoming part of the national standard of care for cancer. Through Maple Tree Cancer Alliance, an organization offering free individualized exercise programs for cancer warriors and thrivers, she is accomplishing just that.
“I began Maple Tree in 2011, after my grandfather’s battle with cancer,” Wonders explains. “I studied the effects of exercise on a cancer diagnosis when I was getting my doctorate at the University of Northern Colorado.”
What Wonders didn’t realize at the time was that exercise was not a part of the standard of care in cancer treatment. “When my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer a few years after I graduated, he was told not to exercise by his physician. I was shocked. I had seen with my own two eyes the benefits exercise had on someone who had cancer and couldn’t believe that people were told not to do it. That is why I started Maple Tree—I knew I had to spread the word and help people get moving.”
One of the reasons many people might not exercise during cancer treatment is because they can’t afford the cost of an exercise program, much less a cancer-specific exercise program. Maple Tree Cancer Alliance doesn’t charge anything for its services, and it is expanding its program across the country to serve more people outside of its Ohio headquarters. Maple Tree Cancer Alliance partners with hospitals all over to bring an exercise program to each hospital’s cancer patients.
“We offer supervised, individualized exercise training, at no cost to the patient. We also can provide them with nutrition education and emotional support through certified psychologists,” says Wonders.
All of the trainers participating must pass a national-accredited Exercise Oncology Instructor certification program before conducting exercise training with warriors. Maple Tree Cancer Alliance also works with a registered dietician to develop its nutrition content, while a licensed psychologist offers the counseling services.
“[My favorite part is] being able to see lives change as someone embraces exercise during their cancer recovery. Often, when someone first comes to Maple Tree, they are overwhelmed and afraid of the journey ahead. We give them something tangible they can do that will help them—and they feel the effects almost immediately. The change we see in a patient from beginning to 12 weeks in is so inspiring to me. These patients truly are warriors,” Wonders says.
“Patients have told us that we have helped them to increase their energy levels and do their daily activities with greater ease,” Wonders continues. “We have had a patient come to us in a wheelchair who in just a few months was able to walk without the use of a cane anymore. We had another patient who was in so much pain from her pelvic floor radiation that she nearly had to quit working. Within just 12 weeks, she was nearly pain free and able to work again. Our goal is to help people to live their lives again without the negative effects of their cancer treatment.”
Each exercise program is individualized according to the warrior’s health and the goals they want to achieve. All exercises are completed one-on-one with a trainer, and there are four basic phases of rehabilitation that each patient goes through. Each phase lasts 12 weeks with the exception of Phase 0, which may last longer due to the time of diagnosis until treatment begins.
Wonders points out that the organization’s website also provides a free library of supplemental education and resources aimed at helping warriors manage their side effects and thrive throughout their cancer recovery.
“I cannot imagine my life without [Maple Tree Cancer Alliance],” Wonders says. “Aside from my faith and my family, it is the most important thing in my life. I am so thankful for this calling and believe that God has put me on this earth to do this amazing work. Every day I am just so thankful I get to be a part of it.”
Maple Tree Cancer Alliance hopes to continue to grow into new networks across the country and enhance its digital library for virtual on-demand exercise options.