Surviving " and thriving " after cancer |

Surviving " and thriving " after cancer

Charles Agar
Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly

What does an Olympic athlete have in common with a cancer survivor ? To Riggs Klika of the Aspen Cancer Survivor Center, everything.

Borrowing from Olympic-level training and the regimens of top cyclists like Lance Armstrong, Klika coaches intensive physical exercise and nutrition as a companion to traditional cancer treatments. The maverick approach is posting results, and the center will host a golf tournament Sept. 16 at the Snowmass Club Golf Course to raise money.

Temporarily housed in offices at The Aspen Club, the Cancer Survivor Center opened in summer 2005. The center operates in conjunction with the Aspen Club’s Carmichael Training Systems center, an Olympic-level training facility developed by Lance Armstrong’s coach, Chris Carmichael. The Cancer Survivor Center staff includes a registered dietitian and a number of specialists in the nascent discipline of

cancer exercise.

Klika’s background is in training top athletes, including members of the U.S. Olympic ski, swim and nordic teams. He received his doctorate in physiology from the University of Texas at Austin before teaming up with Kathleen Callahan to open the Cancer Survivor Center.

Callahan, a licensed social worker, leads the mental health and counseling end of the team. Callahan operated a breast cancer retreat center and support group in Park City, Utah, and was inspired by the positive changes in clients who joined her on vigorous hikes in the hills. Callahan lost both of her grandmothers to breast cancer, as well as her brother-in-law and her mother-in-law to cancer here in Aspen. Those losses drive her to make a difference.

Klika lost his father to cancer; his mother and sister are survivors. That motivates him, he said, but it’s the science of what he is doing that gets him going every day.

The Cancer Survivor Center’s rehabilitation approach in no way replaces traditional cancer treatments, according to Klika. In fact, the center shies away from words like “holistic,” which can connote a magic wand approach to medicine. Rather, the center works hand in hand with oncologists as clients go through traditional cancer treatment including surgery, chemotherapy and aftercare.

The approach

“There is nothing ‘fringe element’ here,” Klika says. “It is scientific.”

Thirty years ago, for example, post-cardiac trauma treatment and care meant months of bed rest. Today many cardiac patients are up and walking just days after surgery. Klika’s approach to cancer survival is similarly proactive, and focuses on the needs and abilities of the client.

It is, Klika says, “an aggressive, focused approach. Motivation is most important.”

The first step is testing. Clients get on a treadmill or stationary bike and get moving. Klika assesses a client’s V02 max, or how much oxygen they can process, while measuring metabolic levels and finding a lactate threshold, essentially finding out “what the body is capable of right now.”

Based on this initial assessment and consultation with medical doctors, Klika assigns a client coordinator, who acts as a coach and creates a diet and exercise plan. Coordinators make sure that clients follow up on all doctor’s appointments and training sessions. Fitness testing is ongoing.

“We’re blending high performance and rehabilitation,” he said. “We’re training people just like performance athletes.”

Since clients come to the center with different types of cancer and different fitness levels, programs are tailored to the individual. All regimens include a change of diet, with a focus on balanced nutrition, including more fresh fruits and vegetables. And all programs include a custom fitness program.

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong began his cancer treatment already at a high level of physical performance. His 1996 testicular cancer diagnosis came at the height of his career and level of fitness. After intensive and debilitating chemotherapy and treatment, Armstrong got right back on the bike and built himself back to his original levels. He went on to win the Tour de France.

Cancer Survivor Center clients are similarly encouraged to return to their original fitness level ” or higher ” after treatment.

According to Klika, higher energy reserves before, during and after cancer treatment mean less vitality lost.

“There is not a question that what we’re doing helps,” said Klika. However, with only 30 clients so far, there is not yet enough empirical data to draw firm conclusions. “The results so far are qualitative, not quantitative.”

There is, said Klika, “good evidence that our training decreases cancer treatment fatigue, and common effects like nausea, and a decrease in reoccurrence of some types of cancer.”

“Do they get healthy faster?” Klika asks. “We’re not sure.”

The center works with oncologists and medical doctors to monitor clients’ hormones, immune system, genetic markers and clients’ general mental well-being to determine what works.

“Are our clients happy? That’s a very important question,” Kathleen Callahan said. Quality of life, Callahan said, is more than just a buzzword in medicine today; it’s an important component of overall health.

“When people lose that positive attitude,” said Callahan, “they get worse quickly.”

Most clients of the center are faced with devastating diagnoses or have completed painful and debilitating cancer treatment. “When medical treatment is over,” Klika asks rhetorically, “what do they do?”

That’s where the center steps in.

“And people love coming here,” said Callahan. “This is a place of health and well-being. Where athletes and people are getting fit and focused on health and growth.” Where better, she asks, for a person who’s experienced such trauma to rehabilitate?

“People coming to the center have had a life-changing moment,” said Klika.

“They’re not here to just drop 5 pounds. A lot of our clients come to us with a dream ” a dream to become what they’ve always wanted to be,” he said. And it is his goal to help folks achieve those dreams.

“If Lance Armstrong can go from chemotherapy to the Tour de France,” Klika said, “we think we can get people, say, back into the garden or out on the trail. Whatever their goal.”

Post-treatment for cancer survivors is not a new field, and Klika and Callahan cooperate with many agencies doing similar work, including nationwide organizations like the American Cancer Society and other post-treatment programs like the local Pathfinders program at Aspen Valley Hospital. But the fledgling center’s intensive physical approach is unique.

Klika’s hopes to create a model facility in Aspen that could be copied in urban areas. He is working on a software program that would combine data about a client’s exercise and diet with vital clinical records. The center focuses on rehabilitation, but Klika also collects data and hopes to publish research on the center’s approach.

The Cancer Survivor Center started with the help of anonymous donations and operates with generous support of Michael Fox, CEO of the Aspen Club.

“Their vision ties with our vision,” Fox said, “which is how to stay healthy.”

Fox donates office space, use of gym equipment and spa, and he is on the center’s board of directors.

The center has so far offered its services for free to clients, and both Klika and Callahan have worked without salary for the first year.

“Remember,” said Riggs, “people are tapped. Cancer treatment is expensive ” in the millions sometimes. We want to help people and not stress their finances.”

But the center is already facing budget shortfalls and needs $100,000 in operating costs for this year alone.

Enter Olympic ski racer Bode Miller. Miller got a call from Bobby Moyer, whose mom, Mary Moyer, worked with Klika at the center. Bobby asked if Bode would help, and the athlete jumped in without hesitation.

“Bode Miller has been very helpful in this process,” said Klika. “He is very supportive with time and help. And he loves kids.”

The fundraiser golf tournament Sept. 16 at the Snowmass Club Golf Course will provide scholarships to underwrite the center’s expenses.

For more information about the center, contact The Cancer Survivor Center for Health and Wellbeing (1450 Crystal Lake Road, Aspen, CO 81611, (970) 920-5836.

Charles Agar’s e-mail address is

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