Jump to main content

Exercise and Cancer Rehabilitation

Reid Hayward, Director of UNCCRI

Debbie Pitner Moors
April 17, 2018

Sitting in a small lab in Ross Hall is a squat, benign-looking gray tank containing liquid nitrogen. It also contains a spectrum of cancer cells from various lines. But this is one instance where cancer cells are helping make cancer patients' lives better. 

UNC researchers use these cells in the lab to determine exercise's effect during and after chemotherapy treatment, then they apply their findings across campus at the UNC Cancer Rehabilitation Institute (UNCCRI). There, cancer patients and survivors participate in exercise programs to combat the effects of chemotherapy and cancer in order to improve their quality of life. 

"We use what we learn in the lab and apply it to real life, and take what we see in real life and try to replicate and address it in the lab," says Reid Hayward, Ph.D., director of the institute. 

UNC's groundbreaking work in cancer rehabilitation has led Hayward to Washington, D.C., where he's spoken to doctors at the National Institutes of Health, and to Memphis, where he's given presentations to teams at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

"This is translational research, we use what we learn in the lab and apply it to real life, and take what we see in real life and try to replicate and address it in the lab." 

An estimated 75 to 95 percent of cancer patients endure severe treatment-related side effects. Hayward explains that cardiotoxicity, or heart failure, is a side effect of a common chemotherapeutic drug, which may force patients to choose to either treat their cancer and deal with heart failure, or have a healthy heart but succumb to cancer. 

Taking this challenge to the lab, Hayward and his colleagues have shown that exercise during and after treatment can help protect the heart against these side effects.

While speaking to doctors at St. Jude's, Hayward was asked about the impact of exercise on children fighting cancer. Returning to Colorado, Hayward headed to his lab, where he found that exercise significantly decreased risks of heart failure as young rats matured. 

Hayward explains that UNC's work with patients, students and research is unique because all three intersect in hands-on understanding. 

"The relationship between patients and students is palpable," Hayward says. That personal touch and customized, research-based approach is something Hayward hopes to expand beyond UNC's geographical boundaries, and he's developing a certification program through both on-campus workshops and global outreach. UNCCRI recently partnered with Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific in Honolulu and with a group in South Korea, where both will be offering UNCCRI's certification course at their faculty. 

"We have people come from dozens of countries, around the world for our workshops," he says. "We're having an impact on not just cancer survivors in our community, but all over the world."