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Canmore author and cancer survivor designs recovery program with exercise focus

“The real definition of success when it comes to cancer comes down to two things, effort, and honour. If we have given a maximum effort, then there's no dishonour.”
20210504 Alan Hobson 0026
Alan Hobson, founder of Climb Back From Cancer, poses for a portrait in his office on Tuesday (May 4). EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

CANMORE – A Canmore-based author and two-time cancer survivor has produced a guidebook and programming to help other cancer survivors in their climb back to recovery.

Alan Hobson, founder of the Climb Back from Cancer Survivorship program, began writing the guidebook Cancer Survivorship from the Inside Out after an initial diagnosis of aggressive blood cancer, acute leukemia, in 2000. Hobson was told without treatment, he would have less than a year to live.

“That was probably a generous estimate,” Hobson writes in the first session of the guidebook. “Needless to say, I was scared.”

Prior to his initial diagnosis, Hobson lived a very active lifestyle, spending years as a mountain climber and succeeded in reaching the summit of Mount Everest after three self-guided exhibitions.

“When I returned home safely, I thought Everest would be the biggest challenge I’d face in my life," he said. "But three years later I came face to face with an even bigger mountain.”

Ninety per cent of Hobson’s bone marrow cells were cancerous and so were 40 per cent of the cells in his bloodstream.

After more than 500 hours of continuous infusion chemotherapy as an in-patient, he received the modern-day equivalent of a bone marrow transplant, an adult blood cell transplant. The donor was his second eldest brother.

“The side effects experienced by most chemotherapy and radiation survivors – fatigue, weakness, nausea and vomiting — mirror those of high-altitude climbers,” writes Hobson.

“Cancer patients and survivors are the same. They are climbers scaling a medical mountain and an energy Everest.”

Hobson’s fatigue was so severe he couldn't stand upright for longer than a minute.

“I was effectively gone,” said Hobson. “But thanks to some fantastic medical care, here in Alberta, and loving supportive family and friends I somehow managed to survive to thrive.”

He noticed that while there were sufficient medical and technical resources provided to him, there was little in the way of immediate support to help guide survivors mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.

“I had access to counselors and psychologists within the medical system, but aside from that, I had nothing," he said.

“I think there's a thing lacking in how we've approached this disease in the past, we've given people information, but we haven't given them inspiration. … You want to give them some directions, so they could do something rather than just have stuff being done to them. This is something they can do for themselves.”

Taking initiative to learn more about how he might address his recovery more effectively, Hobson conducted research and approached medical experts on whether an exercise regimen could combat his severe fatigue.

Among the team of health professionals, Hobson worked with Dr. David Smith, director of sport science for the Canadian Sport Institute Calgary.

When he was initially approached, Smith said Hobson displayed fatigue symptoms similar to high-level, over-trained athletes. Smith had Hobson do 10 to 20 minutes of mild cardiovascular activity three times a week.

“One of the things that you do with a high-performance athlete is build capacity to do work,” said Smith. “You build that capacity by increasing blood volume and increasing the number of mitochondria in muscles that utilize oxygen.

“One of the things that we know from research is that actually low-intensity volume will improve both those qualities.”

After a 12-week exercise program, Hobson found his energy levels were noticeably higher and he could withstand chemotherapy treatments better.

Hobson looked to further the research beyond his own particular experience. Roughly $300,000 was raised to run a pilot program at the Tom Baker Cancer Clinic in Calgary, which enlisted 13 cancer patients who survived bone marrow stem cell transplants – traditionally, those who experience the most debilitating levels of chronic fatigue – and put them on a similar program that resulted in consistent findings.

“Three of the original subjects that we had in our training study from about 2002, [10 years later,] they commented how the program had significantly changed in a very positive way their life and they were extremely grateful to Alan that he had actually started the research program,” said Smith.

In the decade following his treatment, Hobson helped coach scores of cancer survivors across a wide variety of cancer diagnoses. He has been free of cancer for over 13 years.

“It's what I wish I had, if I had access to this program, when I was diagnosed, it would have made a huge positive difference in my life,” he said.

Hobson designed the text to be especially applicable during the initial weeks of a diagnosis when survivors are most in need of emotional support, when “the patient has a minimum information, but a maximum amount of stress.

“You're dealing with the massive spectrum of diseases and outcomes and conditions and side effects. But I think across all of them, the biggest single challenge they face is fatigue,” said Hobson.

“It's also fear of the future and of the unknown.”

Hobson implemented aspects of the exercise program into the Cancer Survivorship guidebook and tailored the details to be accessible for anyone, regardless of exercise experience and physical conditioning.

“The key is first consistency and second it has to be mild and it's got to be individualized which is to say that you can't push it too hard. You’ve got to know exactly what a sweet spot is and that's determined using something called blood lactate which is essentially a by-product of exercise,” said Hobson.

Hobson consulted with a variety of medical professionals and experts, such as oncologists, psychiatrists, dietitians, and social workers, among others, ensuring the materials included are flawlessly accurate. He compared the exhaustive research and review to completing a PhD thesis.

“Distilling it all down into a comprehensive, clear and concise program was a bit like trying to put Mt. Everest into a bell jar,” he said.

Hobson has additionally produced an audio guide to accompany the written text, specifically because those experiencing chemotherapy treatment may not have the energy to even read.

Paul Price, a former park ranger with Bow Valley Provincial Park and Canmore resident, was diagnosed two years ago with lung cancer after having it discovered in his eye.

“At the beginning, it blows you away. You don’t really know where to turn," Price said. 

“The medical professionals can only do their part … [they’ll tell you] ‘I’ll do my 50 per cent and then you have to do your part.’ ”

Price considered himself physically active preceding his diagnosis, doing backcountry skiing and yoga.

“I think [recovery] starts with being active and taking nutrition … I’m half responsible for my well-being, in this case,” he said. 

Price additionally utilizes alternative forms of therapy such as acupuncture and chiropractic therapy. He described the Cancer Survivorship program to be “positive and uplifting.”

Alasdair Cook, another Canmore local, was diagnosed with prostate cancer roughly five years ago and reviewed the guidebook during his recovery. He and his partner, Susan, who is also a survivor of cancer, had to make repeat trips to Calgary in order to receive treatments.

Cook described the experience of an initial diagnosis as similar to driving through a dense fog.

“When you get the diagnosis there’s a sharp intake of breath and the mind starts racing with all the potential roads it could go down,” said Cook.

“You know where the fog light switch is, you can turn it on, but you still don’t know where you’re going … you need someone to help guide you.

“[The program] really does help … it maps it all out. My advice to someone who’s newly diagnosed is to ask, ask, ask and advocate [for themselves].”

Cook and his partner communicated to their Calgary treatment facility they preferred consistently timed treatments during the week, instead of making the drive at various times while recovering, as well as responding to the cost of daily parking fees.

“We are blessed with an excellent health-care system,” said Cook.

Core components of the guidebook and programming require survivors to focus on essentials such as diet, rest and recovery, and to observe their thoughts and actions.

Hobson cites statistics stating one in three people in North America will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime; however, two of every three diagnosed cancer patients will survive the disease.

“The real definition of success when it comes to cancer comes down to two things, effort, and honour. If we have given a maximum effort, then there's no dishonor,” said Hobson.

“That's all we're all trying to do in life. We are trying to maximize our quality of life, for the maximum period of time, regardless of diagnostic cancer or not.”

Hobson’s goal is to get the guidebook into the hands of at least 10,000 cancer-diagnosed patients over the next several years.

The guidebook is accessible for free online at survivecancer.ca and available in print for free at over a half-dozen businesses in the Canmore area, including Café Books, Float Canmore, Ascent Physiotherapy, and others.


Gabe Lunn

About the Author: Gabe Lunn

Gabe Lunn is a Banff native and reporter based in the Bow Valley. His interests have led him to produce coverage on local politics, environmental issues, arts and culture, among other topics.
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