Building Strength and Hope through Survivor Challenge

DSC_0943Team Survivor Challenge is a group of pediatric cancer and blood disorder patients and their families that is training for the Color Run Austin 5K on Saturday, May 7. For these special runners, their sense of achievement will go far beyond crossing the finish line.

Survivor Challenge began in 2007 as a grant-supported pilot study conducted through the Children’s Blood & Cancer Center (CBCC) at Dell Children’s to evaluate the effects of organized physical activity on the health and well-being of adolescent cancer survivors. Since then, hundreds of participants have completed the training, crossed the finish line together, and have incorporated exercise into their lives. The program continues today with two eight-week training sessions offered in the spring and fall. Each patient and family member receives a pair of running shoes. In addition, families who participate are awarded free three-month family memberships from YMCA Austin to stay active in between sessions of Survivor Challenge.

Dr. Robert Mignacca joined the CBCC as a hematologist/oncologist in 2012 and has been a volunteer “running buddy” for patients since then. After spending busy Thursdays caring for patients at the CBCC, Mignacca and his wife, Janis, a CBCC nurse, gather their running gear and head to the Mueller hangar to train with the group.

“I find exercise invaluable in my own life,” says Mignacca, “and I am excited to encourage our families to enjoy the same benefits.”

Cindy Fitchpatrick is the CBCC psychosocial coordinator who oversees all aspects of Survivor Challenge. She has recruited a loyal group of volunteers who serve as running buddies, including CBCC physicians, nurses, medical techs, child life specialists, a dietitian and a psychologist. In addition, many community volunteers come back year after year to help out.

“We couldn’t have Survivor Challenge without the medical staff that volunteer their time to insure that patients are safe during the trainings and races,” says Fitchpatrick.

She loves to watch patients and their families return session after session, motivating one another and building supportive friendships. Patients consistently report feeling stronger and having more energy. By supporting patients and families outside of the clinical setting, CBCC volunteers are able to share in their personal accomplishments and help them stay active through treatment and beyond into survivorship.

“Interactions outside the clinic and hospital provide opportunities to connect with patients and families on a more personal level,” says Mignacca. “I’m hopeful that programs like Survivor Challenge will help teach children how important activity is for their overall good health and that they will take that knowledge into adulthood.”

“It brings us joy to see the kids and their families regaining health and a sense of normalcy,” adds Janis Mignacca. “We give chemo to cure cancer, but Survivor Challenge gives them confidence in themselves and a sense of hope for the future.”