Athlete with breast cancer, 27, finds strength through physical therapy

Her body is accustomed to regular workouts and she’s
also familiar with the benefits of rehabilitation. When she was diagnosed with
breast cancer and her oncologist suggested she begin physical therapy, this
27-year-old didn’t hesitate.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes,

Her great grandmother died of complications from breast cancer.
Her grandmother is a survivor. Janai Mitchell does not have an inherited
mutation, but with a family history, she was diligent with self exams.

It was during one of those exams that that she discovered a lump
in her right breast. In March she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is 27,
and has been healthy most of her life. In the care of IU Health’s Dr. Carla
Fisher and Dr. Tarah Ballinger she underwent a lumpectomy and has started
chemotherapy. She is also part of a unique program that helps in her healing.

The program, called “Multidisciplinary Oncologic Vitality and
Exercise (M.O.V.E.) was created by Dr. Ballinger to bring together a group like minded
healthcare professionals from various disciplines. The goal is to offer
supportive oncology services as part of every patient’s journey through
survivorship. Physical therapy is one of those services.

“The benefits of physical therapy and exercise for patients with
cancer can touch many aspects of their lives,” said IU Health physical therapist Bryce
Showers. “We know that exercise can help reduce side effects such as fatigue,
neuropathy, and overall decline in physical function. By meeting with patients
like Janai, we want to bring these benefits to light, reduce any fear of
exercise while having cancer, and help patients maintain their ability to perform the activities they enjoy and love.”

A long-time resident of Kansas City, Kan., Mitchell played four
years of basketball and volleyball in high school. She was a middle hitter on
the volleyball court and a center for the basketball team.

“I started playing basketball when I was three because
athleticism runs in my family and I’m tall,” said Mitchell, the oldest of four.
Basketball became her focus and she received a scholarship to a Kansas City Community
College and went on to play four years in Wichita at Friends University. A knee
injury caused her to be sidelined. After surgery and recovery she played for
Kansas Wesleyan University and graduated in November 2020. The next month she
moved to Indianapolis to be closer to family. She works at Azenta Life Sciences
as a Regulated Pharmaceutical Technician.

“I moved back to be closer to family, but now that I’ve been
diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s nice to have them close enough to visit me,”
said Mitchell. “When my doctor suggested physical therapy after surgery, I was
confused at first. I didn’t know how the two correlated, but after my first
appointment, I understand the importance of staying active, while doing my
treatments,” she said.

During a recent physical therapy session, Showers, demonstrated
how to work with resistance bands to develop strength. “As we focus on
accessing her functional status we are incorporating exercises that will limit
the decline of her treatments,” said Showers, who started with IU Health last

Showers is part of a team of rehabilitation clinicians trained
to assess, monitor, and treat patients undergoing cancer treatment. According
to one study or 163 women with advanced breast cancer, 92 had one or more
physical impairments – side effects of the disease and treatment – but fewer
than 30 percent received rehabilitation care.

Studies indicate that up to 90 percent of
patients treated with radiation therapy and up to 80 percent of those treated
with chemotherapy experience fatigue. The National Comprehensive Cancer Center
(NCCN) recommends exercise as one of the most effective non-pharmacologic
interventions for patients treated for cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends people undergoing
cancer treatment, and cancer survivors, perform consistent physical exercise to
decrease fatigue, and improve the ability to perform normal daily activities.
Studies show that exercise can improve an individual’s chances of surviving
cancer. Physical therapists design individualized exercise and treatment
programs to reduce or prevent many cancer-related problems.

For Mitchell, who began physical therapy right
after surgery, that means regaining and maintaining her strength and dexterity.
Showers is focused on helping her build upper extremity strength with exercises
she can continue at home.

“As an athlete, I am familiar with PT and the
benefits,” said Mitchell. “I walk a lot in my job but the extra workout with PT
is a bonus in keeping me active and motivated and I know it will benefit me as
I go through treatments.”