Survivor Challenge Builds Strength, Hope

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group_photo600sizeTeam Survivor Challenge is a group of pediatric cancer and blood disorder patients and family members training for the Color Run Austin 5K on Sunday, 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) of Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas. The aim is 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 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, family members who participate are awarded free three-month family memberships from YMCA Austin to stay active in between Survivor Challenge training sessions.

dr_m_with_kids500sizeDr. Robert Mignacca, who joined the CBCC as a hematologist/oncologist in 2012, has been a volunteer “running buddy” for patients since then. After spending busy Thursdays caring for patients, 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,” Mignacca said, “and I am excited to encourage our families to enjoy the same benefits.”

Cindy Fitchpatrick, the CBCC psychosocial coordinator who oversees all aspects of Survivor Challenge, 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,” Fitchpatrick said.

She loves to watch patients and 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,” Mignacca said. “I’m hopeful that programs like Survivor Challenge will help teach children how important activity is for their overall good health and 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,” Janis Mignacca said.  “We give chemo to cure cancer, but Survivor Challenge gives them confidence in themselves and a sense of hope for the future.”