Fighting Cancer in Austin

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When cancer survivors biked across the finish line during last year’s LIVESTRONG Challenge, they were handed a single yellow rose — a symbol to honor the fact that they’ve gotten through or are currently battling cancer.

“There’s just this beautiful moment at the end when people arrive back in the finisher’s village and they’re handed that special yellow rose,” Jessica Murphy, director of marketing and communications for LIVESTRONG says. “The village itself has food and there’s a beer garden and music. It’s just a really lively place to celebrate and catch up with others in the cancer community and the cycling community.”

The challenge is an annual Austin cycling event that raises money for the LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin, a LIVESTRONG Foundation initiative.

The Foundation, based in Austin, is working on initiatives like the Institutes that directly involve the city, from a program that’s offered at YMCAs in Austin to a curriculum piloted at Austin-area schools. The Foundation also offers opportunities, such as the LIVESTRONG Challenge, for Austinites to get involved in the organization.

“Our mission statement is to improve the lives of people affected by cancer now,” Murphy says. “We’re thinking about the people today that are fighting cancer and the burden that takes on your life in a very holistic way  as soon as you’re diagnosed.”

The LIVESTRONG Foundation pledged $50 million to UT’s Dell Medical School in 2015 to build the Institutes, which have a mission for cancer care to be person-centered, focusing on a cancer patient’s needs, values and preferences.

“We say person-centred because we recognize that it’s not just the patient or the person who’s been diagnosed with cancer that is affected by the disease…their entire family system, their friends in Austin (are) as well,” Aditi Narayan, director of programs for LIVESTRONG says.

The Institutes seek to improve people’s cancer experiences and quality of life by acknowledging the challenges they face such as emotional distress, family instability, career impact and long-term financial hardships.

As part of this initiative, in December 2018, LIVESTRONG opened the UT Health Austin Livestrong Cancer Institutes, a cancer clinic that has seen a number of patients already, Narayan says. 

“The clinics are currently able to serve people with gynecological cancers or gastrointestinal cancers with hopes to expand the type of cancers that we serve in 2019 and beyond,” Narayan says. 

LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, another one of the Foundation’s programs, was started in 2007. The Foundation partnered with YMCA of the USA to create a 12-week program designed to help cancer survivors return to physical activity after treatment.

Through the program, survivors are able to participate in free or low-cost customized exercise regimens from certified fitness instructors. Survivors receive a membership at the YMCA for the duration of the program.

Narayan says the program has been researched by academics at the Yale Cancer Center and Dana Farber Cancer Institute, who found participants in the program experience an increase in cardiovascular strength, improvements in quality of life and a reduction in cancer-related fatigue.

“They also saw, in the improved quality of life, that the survivors acted as a support group for each other emotionally, which was also really great,” Narayan says.

To date, LIVESTRONG has served over 66,000 cancer survivors through the program. Of the program’s 768 locations in 22 states, 49 are in Texas and five are in Austin. 

Also taking place in Austin, LIVESTRONG at School is a program developed in 2008. The program features curriculum for educators to use that explains cancer in an age-appropriate way to students in grades K-12.

“The program really was designed because we heard from parents and teachers that there was a gap in the type of education provided to help children understand what cancer is and what it isn’t,” Narayan says.

The curriculum is free to download from the website of The Foundation’s distribution partner, Scholastic. Last year, the Foundation’s partners at the Livestrong Cancer Institute had a pilot with the Austin Independent School District and delivered the program at four high schools within AISD.

“We received really great feedback from students about the curriculum,” Narayan says. “This is something that’s going to continue this year and potentially expand to additional schools as well.”

LIVESTRONG also partners with over 700 fertility clinics and sperm banks across the country, including some in the Austin area, to provide access to discounted fertility preservation for adolescents and young adult cancer patients. This program, LIVESTRONG Fertility, increases awareness about cancer-related fertility risks.

The program, Narayan says, has helped over 11,000 young adults save over $53.3 million in fertility preservation and medication costs. 

Austinites can get involved with the Foundation’s initiatives by joining the Foundation’s Austin Marathon team, applying for an internship or, of course, through participating or volunteering in the LIVESTRONG Challenge.

Volunteers at the event are crucial, Murphy says, whether they are helping during registration and packet pick-up, or handing out the yellow roses at the end of the event.  

 

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