7 Fitness Secrets from St. Jude Patient Athletes

How do patients maintain the physical and mental fitness necessary for their chosen sports? Several teens share their strategies.

Matt Dela Cruz

1. Take fitness to heart

Matt Dela Cruz had his life under control when his world turned topsy-turvy. The young athlete played volleyball, soccer and ran track. He also played forward for Guam’s national basketball team, helping them bring home both gold and bronze medals.

Suddenly, college plans and basketball practices were relegated to the back-burner so that he could begin treatment for acute myeloid leukemia.

To maintain fitness during treatment, Matt works out in the gym at his St. Jude residence, Target House.

“One of the chemotherapy drugs I have taken affects the heart long-term, so I do cardio to strengthen my heart,” Matt says. “I do cardio and then lift weights.”

Matt says he also gains strength from his clinical team and his peers in the St. Jude Teen Room.

“There’s a lot of bad stuff happening in the world,” he says. “You want to know where all the good people are? They’re all here at St. Jude.”

Zach Fejeran

2. Set new goals

Before he arrived at St. Jude, high school freshman Zach Fejeran had developed a novel way to develop his upper body strength for football: chopping wood.

“I just like to do it,” he says with a laugh.

But in December of 2014, Zach put that activity on hold when he was tackled by Burkitt lymphoma.

Because of the central line implanted in his chest, Zach focuses on other body parts during his regular workouts at Target House. He keeps a log of his progress, with plans for returning to football, as well as participating in shot put and discus during track and field season.

“I’ve never really been strong in my legs, so I thought this was a good time to build them up,” says Zach, whose regular routine includes leg presses and treadmill workouts, as well as bicep curls and tricep exercises.

His advice for other patients hoping to return to competition is short and sweet: “Try to build up again,” he says.

Hannah Tate and Janet Adams

3. Work hard

When Hannah Tate began treatment for a rare kidney tumor, she didn’t have to inform St. Jude staff about her sports background.

“I immediately sensed there was something special about Hannah in addition to her big, beautiful smile and her respectful demeanor,” says Janet Adams, a physical therapist assistant in Rehabilitation Services. Adams soon discovered that Hannah was a varsity basketball player, a dancer, a sprinter, and a shot put and discus competitor.

To build endurance before surgery, Hannah walked the halls with weights strapped to her legs. Her current regimen includes squats, walking, and balance and endurance exercises.

“It’s tough,” she admits. “I get frustrated at times, because I’m not able to do all the things I’ve been able to do in the past. But I believe everything happens for a reason, and I just keep going. In the hospital, you can always do something to stay in shape, whether it’s getting up out of your bed or walking the hallways.”

Editors note: Hannah Tate lost her battle with cancer January 2016.

Jaxon Hindman

4. Get back in the game

It was a freak accident. A lightweight dodgeball hit Jaxon Hindman in the head when he was looking the other way, knocking him to the floor. During a subsequent CT scan, doctors spied an ominous mass: a brain tumor called medulloblastoma. In the previous weeks, Jaxon had experienced no symptoms; in fact, in the days and weeks before his diagnosis, he had run several miles and had zoomed down ski slopes.

The 13-year-old has always led an active lifestyle, including football, baseball, lacrosse and basketball. During treatment, doctors warned that contact sports such as football might not be a good option in the future. So Jaxon is focusing on basketball. Last fall, he insisted on playing the first game of the season in spite of having influenza only days before.

Jaxon credits St. Jude nurse anesthetist John Davidson with providing inspiration during his treatment. “I want to be a CRNA and work at St. Jude and help kids just like Mr. John helped me,” he says. 

Hannah West

5. Follow your passion

Gimme an H, give me an O, gimme an RSE. What does that spell? Therapy!

These days, cheerleader Hannah West doesn’t leap off pyramids or run long distances. But she has found a creative way to strengthen her leg, after undergoing surgery to remove a bone tumor called Ewing sarcoma.

To cure her cancer, Hannah received chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant and radiation therapy. Formerly a competitive cheerleader and dancer, she wanted to return to cheerleading after treatment. St. Jude physical therapists helped her work toward that goal.

Today, she is a member of her school’s cheerleading squad and a manager of the basketball team. “I can do pretty much everything that the other girls do,” she says.

Hannah has also taken up horseback riding. “The riding strengthens my leg,” she explains. “I always wanted to be around horses, and I plan on continuing to ride for the rest of my life. Once I get older, I’m leaning toward either working at St. Jude or running a horse rescue.”

Lin Zheng with Anna Corr

6. Get a move-on

“Are you ready?” asks St. Jude Physical Therapist Angela Corr, DPT, as Lin Zheng steps onto the treadmill in St. Jude Rehabilitation Services. In response, Lin accelerates his pace. For the next eight minutes, he alternates faster and slower tempos, followed by a session of balance exercises.

The former swimmer and cross country runner is recovering from the effects of a bone marrow transplant he received as part of therapy for acute myeloid leukemia. To increase his stamina and muscle tone, he walks, does squats and lunges and calf exercises. Recently he has begun inter-spersing running—gradually increasing the duration and intensity.

St. Jude staff encouraged Lin throughout the long process of rebuilding his strength.

“They make you move when you really don’t want to,” he says, “and they introduced me to exercises that were really helpful.”

After experiencing lung problems during transplant, Lin has advice for other teens who want to maximize their progress after transplant: “Don’t stay in bed too long,” he says.

Nick London

7. Push through and give back

In a hospital filled with children, Nick London draws his share of curious glances. At 6-foot, 5-inches tall, the ninth-grader towers over his medical team. But like many patients at St. Jude, he is engaged in a head-to-head match with cancer.

Already receiving serious attention from college basketball recruiters, Nick has his sights firmly set on the NBA.

His short-term goal is to maintain his fitness during the two-and-a-half year treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Twice a week, he hits the gym, running, lifting light weights and doing agility training.

While undergoing treatment, he has made a conscious effort to help others—hosting a charity basketball tournament and spearheading a toy drive for the kids of St. Jude.

His message for other patients could apply to most challenges in life: “My advice is to just push through it,” he says. “It’s not going to be easy, but it can be done. You just have to tell yourself that you can do it.”

Abridged from Promise, Spring 2015

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