When Loyola oncologist tells patients to exercise, he walks the walk

News Archive January 30, 2013

When Loyola oncologist tells patients to exercise, he walks the walk

Dr. Patrick Stiff and patient climb Grand Canyon together

Loyola oncologist Dr. Patrick Stiff lectures desperately ill patients who are undergoing bone marrow transplants that they need to drag themselves out of bed to exercise.

Studies have shown that vigorous exercise improves survival by, for example, reducing the risk of pneumonia.

So when one of his cancer-surviving patients proposed that they walk to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and climb back up to the top - in one day - Stiff accepted the challenge.

"How can we tell people to exercise vigorously if we don't do it ourselves?" Stiff asked. "It's just like smoking - how can we tell patients to quit smoking if we do it ourselves?"

Stiff and his patient Nancy McNerney and her husband, Jim, did a Grand Canyon "rim-to-rim" hike on a beautiful, cloudless day. They began descending the steep trail before sunrise, taking about 3½ hours to reach bottom. They ate lunch, then walked 2 or 3 miles to reach the ascending trail. The hike up took 7 more hours, and as they neared the top, they saw a glorious sunset.

Stiff, 61, has run several marathons. He has climbed to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. He has hiked in a scorching desert in Jordan, and camped near the North Pole in minus-20 degrees. And he has climbed to the base camp of Mt. Everest. "But doing the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim was harder than anything else I've ever done in a single day," he said.

McNerney, 58, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2007. She and her husband live in Arizona. But they came to Loyola for treatment because Jim has family ties in Chicago, and their research convinced them Loyola in Maywood, Ill., offered the best treatment.

Loyola has treated more than 3,000 patients with stem cell transplants from bone marrow and umbilical - cord blood - more than any other center in Illinois. Loyola also has one of the largest unrelated-donor transplant programs in the world.

When she arrived at Loyola, McNerney’s cancer was advanced Stage 4, and her chance of survival was only 30 to 50 percent. A bone marrow transplant was her only hope. First, stem cells were removed from her bone marrow and frozen. Then McNerney received high-dose chemotherapy and total-body radiation to destroy the cancer cells. The stem cells then were infused back into her body, and developed into a new immune system.

McNerney was wiped out by the treatment. But, following Stiff's orders, she forced herself to get on the exercise bike twice a day, and to walk the hospital halls a half-hour each day with her IV pole.

The cancer has not returned since the transplant, and she is almost certainly cured, Stiff said. It helped that she was physically fit before she got sick.

"People with good stamina and a positive attitude like Nancy's tend to do better," Stiff said.

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