By Jane Alvarez-Hernandez and Rosanne Fohn
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month — a reminder to get a breast cancer screening and a time for breast cancer survivors to reflect on their journey.
Lindsay Fry is a breast cancer survivor who was first diagnosed in 2019. Her treatment regimen of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy began in fall 2019. Shortly after completing her treatment, Fry became the first participant in a new clinical trial at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio) that aims to help breast cancer survivors regain their energy and remain cancer free.
In late summer 2019, Lindsay first noticed a pain under her arm and felt a lump in a lymph node. She immediately performed a breast self-exam but did not feel anything abnormal. She simply chalked it up to having finished a round of antibiotics for a minor infection.
However, the next month Fry felt the same pain, this time in her breast, where she also felt a lump. “That freaked me out,” Fry said, “but I knew my annual well-woman exam with my OB/GYN was scheduled for the following week. I was only 37 and thought I was too young to have breast cancer.”
Fry’s gynecologist ordered a mammogram, then an ultrasound, followed by a biopsy. “I guess it took almost a week to get the results,” Fry recalled. “It felt like forever.” Fry was immediately referred to a surgeon.
“Once I saw the surgeon,” Fry said, “she was able to tell me what type of breast cancer I had and laid out a treatment plan. Because we caught it early it was treatable, which gave me a sense of relief and feeling of confidence.” Fry underwent chemotherapy, a lumpectomy in which the cancerous tumor and a margin of surrounding healthy tissue were removed from her breast, and 34 rounds of radiation that ended in June 2020. Six months of oral chemotherapy followed through Dec. 31.
Clinical trial participation brings hope, energy and strength
Shortly after she completed treatment, Fry’s best friend, a physical therapist, was at UT Health San Antonio when she noticed a flyer in an elevator seeking breast cancer survivors for a clinical trial. She snapped a photo of the flyer and sent it to her friend. The clinical trial is evaluating the benefits of exercise among breast cancer survivors and whether creatine supplements can accelerate gains in strength and endurance.
“It was perfect,” Fry said. “In March 2021, I was the first person enrolled in the clinical trial. It was exactly what I needed to bounce back and regain my energy and strength from the surgery and the intensive breast cancer treatments I had just undergone.”
“Exercise has been shown to improve the quality of life of breast cancer and other cancer survivors,” explained Darpan Patel, PhD, associate professor in the UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing and principal investigator of the study. An exercise physiologist, Dr. Patel has studied the benefits of exercise and supplements in other types of cancer survivors.
“Creatine is a natural substance made by the body that is stored in the muscles and the brain. Creatine also is a supplement that has been around for a long time. It has been used primarily by athletes and weekend warriors to help improve athletic performance by storing more energy in the muscles and to help muscles do more for a longer time,” he said.
“What we are hoping to learn with this study is whether creatine can reverse the side effects of chemotherapy, primarily fatigue, and the effects of sarcopenia (loss of skeletal muscle mass) and weight gain that often comes with aging, and also to help people improve the whole experience on the body of having had cancer. That is the three-headed jackal that we are hoping to overcome,” Dr. Patel explained.
Dr. Patel and his colleagues are seeking former breast cancer patients who have had chemotherapy to participate in the clinical trial. “There are two study groups in this clinical trial,” Dr. Patel explained. “Both groups will participate in three exercise sessions per week via Zoom for 12 weeks, led by our trainer. One group will also be assigned to take a creatine supplement.”
Other UT Health San Antonio faculty members involved in the study include:
- Virginia Kaklamani, MD, professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology and leader of the Breast Cancer Program at the Mays Cancer Center, home to UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center.
- Nicolas Musi, MD, professor of medicine and director of the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies.
- Sara Espinoza, MD, MSc, professor of medicine and associate chief for research at the Barshop Institute.
Fry said, “It’s just amazing how much research is being done, which, I’ve come to learn, points to exercise — especially weight-bearing exercise — as an important factor that can lead to good health and disease prevention.”
Now that she’s completed the clinical trial, Fry said she is feeling stronger and healthier. She has kept up her exercise routine, which now includes running (a favorite form of exercise before her cancer diagnosis) in addition to weight-bearing exercises a minimum of five times a week, to prevent the chance of recurrence.
To learn more about the clinical trial seeking breast cancer survivors, click here.