From Survivorship to Sisterhood: Jennifer Harper’s Survivors’ Fit Club is changing the lives of breast cancer patients

MUSC Health
October 09, 2020
Jennifer Harper working out at Survivors' Fit Club

MUSC Health Radiation Oncologist Jennifer Harper, M.D., knows that when women reach the end of their cancer treatment, their health journey is far from over. The healing process that follows is not only physical but also mental.

"After a breast cancer diagnosis, you have to learn to deal with this slight uncertainty," she says. "There's no lab test at the end of your treatment that says ‘You're done; the breast cancer will never come back.' So they have to learn to deal with this."

That's one reason why, in 2016, Harper launched Survivors' Fit Club (SFC), a free nutrition-and-exercise program designed for breast cancer patients coming out of treatment at the Comprehensive Breast Care Program at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center and into the survivorship phase.

Harper was inspired by MUSC Wellness Center's Healthy Charleston Challenge — a 10-week overweight/obesity and chronic disease-prevention boot camp — so she worked with Wellness Center Director Janis Newton and Program Director Tatiana Baier, along with MUSC Health trainers and dietitians, to create SFC. Twice a week for 10 weeks, participants meet at the Wellness Center for a program that's one-part health education and one-part exercise — each session offers both.

If radiation is needed, it's the final component of treatment. That’s when Harper has the opportunity to talk with patients about the option of SFC before they step back into the world post-cancer, bringing a unique whole-patient experience to what she offers as a provider.

"The beautiful thing about Dr. Harper, besides her being a phenomenal radiation oncologist, is that she really takes such an authentic and sincere interest in her patients’ entire lives," Newton says. "She wants to give them more."

Participants are women who want to move on with their lives, but they also want to make exercise a component of that, Harper says.

It's a chance for patients to make lifestyle modifications to improve their global health and reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence. For many, the Fit Club means staving off depression by removing the impact of social isolation that often comes with having cancer.

Harper says that studies show that group activity releases endorphins, which causes bonding among the group. "So you have this group releasing endorphins through exercise and bonding with people at the same time," she explains.

When designing the program, the Wellness Center team was concerned with introducing a science-based approach focused on lifestyle habits, specifically with how that relates to long-term survivorship. Newton says, "It's specific for stress and brain health, resilience and self-growth."

SFC sessions often address unmet needs, like yoga breathing techniques, to help patients deal with anxiety and improve insomnia. That's what helped patients like NASA Earth Science Data Systems Community Coordinator Cynthia Hall, who was a SFC participant in the fall of 2018.

"I was struggling with why I had breast cancer, because I felt I was fairly young — I’m in my 40s," says Hall, one of the many patients Harper has referred to SFC. “A lot of us struggled with mental health issues and depression, so coming together as a community and being able to learn and be informed about what we could do to make a change in our lives was really incredible.”

In addition to depression, Hall, like others, struggled with weight gain, which can be a side-effect of estrogen-reducing medications some patients take. When Harper founded SFC, she knew that this brought her patients added frustration and disappointment. “I love having a solution to that," she says.

Body fat makes estrogen, and many breast cancers are fed by estrogen, Harper explains. "So if you could lower the amount of body fat you have, you can lower the amount of circulating estrogen you have and produce benefits and a better overall outcome.”

But the most important SFC advantage could be the support groups created there, where patients can discuss issues they may not talk about with anyone else. For example, as Harper walked her routine laps at the Wellness Center recently, she overheard participants discussing things like medication and no one but a fellow patient could understand.

“Once you go through something like that, it's nice to have a community that you can go to and talk to and realize that others have been through the same thing that you have and are also struggling with some of the same issues,” Hall says.

Before the pandemic, Hall still got together with her SFC group from 2.5 years ago, and now they still keep in touch virtually. Whether it's a group text or a dinner get-together, it remains important for former members to check in on each other, talk medications, and make sure everyone is still coping OK.

Though COVID-19 has presented challenges (the Spring 2020 group was unable to finish the last week of its program), Baier says the Wellness Center plans to get the gang together again for a group workout with previous participants as soon as it’s safe. “This allows us to stay connected and keep offering our thorough support,” she says.

Thanks to sponsorship from Hollings as well as Racquets for Recovery, the new Hybrid Fall 2020 Survivors’ Fit Club, consisting of five women, began meeting on September 14 every Monday and Wednesday; a group of five MUSC dietetic interns joined on October 5. “Every participant will be paired with a dietetic intern for individual nutrition consultations and support,” Baier says. “The program is announced as hybrid because some components and meetings are organized online, but most of the program, including all exercise sessions, are done in person at the MUSC Wellness Center.”

The group is following the MUSC Wellness Center Phase one policies (PDF).

“We are beyond happy to be able to offer the Fall 2020 Survivors’ Fit Club and help our five ladies make permanent lifestyle changes and improve cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, body composition, fatigue, anxiety, and depression,” Baier adds.

When Harper, Newton, Baier and the rest of the team were busy formulating all that the Survivor’s Fit Club would entail, they had no idea the magical, secret ingredient would be the strong and lasting sense of community created among the participants. But they realized the grand purpose somewhere along the way.

“It was going to be good. We knew it was needed,” Newton says. “Jennifer wanted to give more to her patients; she wanted a continuation. She sensed a need that she wanted to get fulfilled for her patients, but what came of it was more powerful than we could ever have imagined.”

As for Harper, she’s set on changing the world one Fit Club at a time. She says, “I see the personal benefits of exercise and fitness and global wellness — I just want other people to have that, too.”

About the Author

MUSC Health

Keywords: Breast Cancer, Cancer, Wellness, Womens Health, Patient Story