Grete Waitz may have lost her battle against cancer in 2011 but her running legacy and commitment to her sport lives on in her charity, AKTIV Against Cancer.
The nine-time New York City Marathon winner founded the charity in 2007 to support patients like herself who were using sport as a way to help them through their grueling treatment.
adidas has partnered with AKTIV Against Cancer since 2009, enabling it to support research into the benefits of sport for cancer patients and the education of oncologists in this field.
Jennifer Thomas, Senior Director Sports Marketing and Communication for adidas Running and member of the AKTIV Against Cancer Board, explains, “Grete Waitz was the Muhammad Ali of running: nine-time New York City Marathon winner and one of the most successful female athletes of all time, ensuring her a spot in adidas’ rich heritage.
When AKTIV Against Cancer started ten years ago, and after just one year we knew that we wanted to be a part of it, with a clear belief that, through sport, we have the power to change lives.
First the focus was solely on the physical activity centers within cancer treatment hospitals in Norway, but we’re building on that to make a truly global impact, through research and other educational programs.”
Fresh eyes and energy for the fight against cancer
Dr. Lee Jones is a leading researcher in the field of exercise-oncology and directs a research program dedicated to the investigation of exercise in cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
As an exercise enthusiast himself, Dr. Jones was studying for his PhD with a supervisor when they first began investigating whether exercise had a potential role for individuals following a cancer diagnosis.
“We felt that a lot of work had already occurred with regards to exercise and heart disease and diabetes, but we realized that cancer had been largely ignored.
Right at that time, nobody was really talking about an individual with cancer living longer than five years. We felt that something like exercise could be extremely important, and so we just started to put some research ideas together.”
Upsetting the status quo
“When we started around 20 years ago, the recommendation at that time was for patients to do nothing, to avoid exercise – they fatigued, and they’d be nauseous, they may be getting side effects from the treatment, and so the last thing that they should be doing is exercise. That was the thinking at the time.
It’s actually a little bit like what we were telling heart attack patients 50 years ago: six weeks of bed rest. Now if you suffer a heart attack, it’s exercise the day after treatment. I think, in many respects, oncology 20 years ago was where heart disease was 50 years ago.
The first studies were to show that it was safe and feasible. From there, it’s just ballooned into many different questions around improvements in quality of life, tolerability of treatment, mitigating and preventing some of the physiological side effects patients become prone to during and after cancer therapy.
From that perspective, there’s observational data suggesting that those cancer patients who complete high levels of exercise can have anywhere from 20% to 50% reductions in the risk of their cancer coming back. That’s an association. Now, we’re doing the clinical trials to prove that exercise can actually prevent cancer coming back.”
Cancer is not just one disease with a one-size-fits-all approach
Some of the work adidas is supporting through AKTIV Against Cancer looks at how exercise affects different types of cancers. Dr. Jones explains, “People have thought about investigating exercise in cancer from a ‘one-size-fit-all’ perspective with cancer being simply one disease, but of course we know that it isn’t.
Cancers are molecularly very different. We’re actually profiling tumors and then looking at exercise response. Exercise has been shown to work across a number of different cancers particularly breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer, but we believe that understanding the biology of tumors is going to be very important in understanding which specific tumors respond to exercise and why.”
Sport as a treatment for cancer
Just as Grete Waitz tailored her training plans to the race she had to run, AKTIV Against Cancer and Dr. Jones are also looking to help cancer patients with the same level of personalization.
“The medical history of that individual must be looked at, what their physical status is right now, what type of therapy they’re on, what the biology of their tumor is and then putting all that together a tailored exercise prescription for that individual can be created.”
Pushing the science forward through data
“I love exercise. I’m the biggest proponent, but it’s not about my opinion. It’s about the data. When I talk about exercise, I talk about it like a drug. We go after the same endpoints that drug trials do. We talk the same language oncologists do. I think, when you do that, you start to convert some of the naysayers because of the rigorous approach that we take.”
To date, AKTIV Against Cancer has introduced fitness centers into hospitals in Norway and they’re making further inroads into globalizing their efforts with the launch of the Ethiopian Oncology Education Program. With a population of over 100 million people and – until recently – just three oncologists and 12 beds for cancer patients, the need couldn’t be greater. The program in Ethiopia is already proving a success, with five doctors graduating in 2017, and a further six students currently completing their studies.
Want to know more about AKTIV Against Cancer?
Check out the link below for more information on the work they’re doingClick here