Empowering Cancer Survivors Through Triathlon

By Michael Nystrom | Jan. 14, 2019, 12:29 p.m. (ET)

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2019 edition of USA Triathlon Magazine. To read the digital version of the magazine, or to become a member and subscribe, visit here

Team Phoenix

Like many triathlon groups across the country, Team Phoenix closes each training session with a motivational cheer intended to build camaraderie and solidarity among its members. Unlike many triathlon groups, though, are the unique circumstances its post-workout cheer speaks to. 

Surgery. Done!

Chemo. Done!

Radiation. Done!

What are we gonna do? Swim!

What are we gonna do? Bike!

What are we gonna do? Run!

We are: Strong!

We are: Proud!

We are: Alive!

We are: Redefined!

Who are we? Team Phoenix!

Founded in 2011, Team Phoenix is a Milwaukee-based fitness and research program that takes cancer survivors at varying fitness levels and trains them over a 14-week period for a sprint triathlon. What started as an idea by breast oncology surgeon (and amateur triathlete) Dr. Judy A. Tjoe of the Aurora Research Institute to keep cancer survivors active and motivated, the team has grown from 13 cancer survivors in its first year to more than 50 in its seventh season.

“Care doesn’t stop after treatment; that’s why we developed the Team Phoenix training program,” says Tjoe. “We want to empower cancer survivors to improve their physical and mental fitness and redefine survivorship by removing physical and psychological barriers to maintaining exercise routines.”

Most cancer survivors do not meet the minimum activity and exercise guidelines set by the American Cancer Society, despite research showing survivors who exercise regularly experience a range of benefits — from an improved quality of life to a decreased mortality rate.

The problem often stems not from the lack of interest in exercising, but most commonly from a lack of knowledge, experience and financial means. Funded by donations made through the Aurora Health Care Foundation, Team Phoenix removes these barriers to entry.

Team Phoenix participants have historically received a swimsuit, loaner bike from Milwaukee bike shop Wheel and Sprocket, and a complimentary season-long gym membership.

Additionally, the weekly group training sessions are professionally coached and include individually modified training plans for each athlete. Each session is overseen by doctors, physical therapists and registered nurses. Many Team Phoenix graduates return to help mentor new triathletes who have never considered themselves athletes or trained for anything in their life. Trust is the foundation of each workout, and the stigma surrounding cancer and body image is removed through positive feedback, education and support.

“Team Phoenix not only gave me my life back, it gave me joy and purpose again. Cancer treatment after-effects brought me down from being an active, fit person to that of a decrepit middle-aged woman,” says Kim Belton, Team Phoenix alum and breast cancer survivor. “I really didn’t expect to live a long life, but within weeks of beginning training, my nerve pain was almost non-existent. I became active and felt so much better. I actually met with my financial planner to let her know that I needed to plan for a longer retirement.”

Not surprisingly, the women draw on the strong symbolic parallel between the three steps in treating cancer and the three sports that make up triathlon as their motivation. Their motto “surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, not by choice — swim, bike and run, by choice” echoes the perseverance and determination required for each challenge.

“Cancer takes away something from people that we in healthcare can’t give back, and that’s where Team Phoenix comes in,” says Leslie J. Waltke, PT, DPT, Cancer Rehabilitation Specialist, Aurora Physical Therapy and co-founder of Team Phoenix. “It helps with empowerment; it helps these women trust their bodies again after they’ve been betrayed, and they take physical control again after losing so much through cancer treatment. It’s something that lasts far beyond the 14 weeks.”

Research is also a big focus for the Team Phoenix organizers. The athletes are closely monitored, and the health information gathered throughout the duration of the program helps refocus the program for future years in addition to providing data for a range of cancer-related studies.

“Their participation and health information is now helping the next generation of survivors by providing data to better correlate the impact of exercise on inflammatory cytokines, cancer-related fatigue, as well as cardiac function — which may be adversely affected by cancer treatments,” says Tjoe.

For some Team Phoenix athletes, simply completing the single sprint triathlon after training for 14 weeks is the accomplishment of their lives. For others, it sparks a continuing interest. Many alumnae have gone on to become multiple-time triathlon finishers, including IRONMAN and long-course events.

“Although I was active before breast cancer, doing mostly marathons, it was really Dr. Tjoe’s Team Phoenix program that exposed me to the world of triathlon,” says Joan Cristostomo, a member of the first team. “Now I’m hooked and hope to continue competing for many more years. Most recently, I competed at an aquathlon and I qualified for the ITU World Championships in Spain next spring.”

Where does Team Phoenix see itself in the coming years? 

Other medical facilities across the United States have observed Team Phoenix’s success and have expressed interest in replicating the program. Additionally, Team Phoenix is considering opportunities for expansion, including virtual training programs, additional facility locations and opportunities for increased supporter involvement. Former members will now have access to weekly workouts led by an Aurora athletic trainer. 

Team Phoenix is now accepting new members for their upcoming eighth season. To learn more about how Team Phoenix is “redefining survivorship,” visit aurorahealthcare.org

Team Phoenix