Squashing Cancer

By David ArkinOctober 23, 2023No Comments

Squashing Cancer

By Tori Couch
Photos by Jill Johnson

Expanded Texas Health Program Supports, Empowers Cancer Patients

Patti Crummel and Mitzi Gault laugh while doing a Zumba class at the Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest Fort Worth fitness center on a Friday morning. Each dancer is decked out in a jingly skirt that ties around the waist.

The instructor leads the class through several dances, motioning them forward, backward, left and right, with a few squats along the way.

“I love the Zumba teacher,” Crummel said. “You just smile through the whole session, because she does.”

An air of lightness fills the room, along with noise from the skirts, as the dancers work up a sweat in the exercise class, which is designed for cancer patients as part of Texas Health’s N.E.A.T. (Nutrition, Exercise and Attitudes for Tomorrow) program. The free program started at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Hurst-Euless-Bedford more than 20 years ago and expanded to Texas Health Southwest and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas in April.

The program underwent changes upon expansion and provides a free yearlong gym membership, access to nine weekly exercise classes, wellness seminars and 12 weeks of one-on-one health and wellness coaching. N.E.A.T. is funded by donations to the Texas Health Resources Foundation.

“N.E.A.T. meets needs,” Crummel said. “Physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual.”

Crummel, 71, was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2021 after finding a lump during a self-exam. A mammogram alerted Gault, 68, to a cancerous breast tumor in September 2022.

Gault started with the N.E.A.T. program shortly after it expanded to Texas Health Southwest. A few weeks later, she helped Crummel get connected, too.

Crummel was diagnosed with cancer in 2021 and found N.E.A.T. through Gault.
N.E.A.T. “put everything together for me,” Crummel said of the resources offered
through the program. “I didn’t have to go out and say, ‘Where can I find something on nutrition?’ It put it together.”

Gault and Crummel met in September 1980 while working as nurses at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth. A friendship blossomed as the women have walked through life together as wives, mothers and grandmothers.

They taught breast cancer awareness classes to women’s groups, played handbells at church, taught Bible school classes and had children around the same time. Gault and Crummel watched their mothers battle breast cancer, too.

When Gault heard about N.E.A.T., it was an easy decision to join the program.

“I feel like it’s something we can do for ourselves,” Gault said. “The rest of it is out of our hands. Our surgeons told us what we needed. We were told what we had to do or needed to do. This is something where I feel like I have a little more control over the rest of my life by doing this.”

Jennifer Hunter, a survivor of endometrial cancer, is vice president of strategy and growth for FX Well, which runs the nine fitness centers in the Texas Health Resources system. She saw the impact N.E.A.T. classes had on women at the Hurst-Euless-Bedford location.

“By talking to other people that are going through those same experiences, it does make a huge difference,” Hunter said. “You build those bonds. That’s why the N.E.A.T. classes are such an important part, because it’s not just giving them the health portion that has been proven to help them, it’s also providing that support group.”

Exercise, along with nutrition, mental toughness and stress management, played key roles in Hunter’s story. Her journey from a diagnosis that “takes your breath away” to recovery provided inspiration while rewriting the N.E.A.T grant request to the Texas Health Resources Foundation last fall.

Before Hunter re-envisioned the program, it offered a free gym membership and N.E.A.T.- specific exercise classes.

The grant request restructured and expanded the exercise class offerings. Each type of class is conducted three times per week, focusing on a different aspect of an exercise regimen. Yoga addresses mindfulness, strength training helps maintain bone density and Zumba is the cardio option.

Hunter also added quarterly wellness seminars and the weekly one-on-one health and wellness coaching sessions.

Ed Jones, a certified health education specialist and former high school football coach, conducts the coaching sessions. They cover various health and wellness topics including nutrition, sleep habits, stress management, building a social support network and self-care.

“The great thing about the program is that it doesn’t matter what stage of your diagnosis you’re in, there are aspects of the program that are applicable to wherever you are,” Jones said.

Focusing on these topics was intentional, because research from the American Cancer Society shows that eating properly and maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce cancer risk and improve the outcomes of some cancers. Proper dietary habits have also been proved to lower the risk of other chronic diseases.

A 17-year colon cancer survivor, Jones can relate to the struggles and successes cancer patients experience during treatment. Gault and Crummel saw that during their sessions.

“He’s just the ultimate encourager,” Crummel said. “He’s already been there. He had cancer at such a young age.”

Gault added, “We’re his cheerleaders. I think everybody should have an Ed in their life.”

Gault found the session to improve sleep habits particularly helpful while adjusting to side effects from different medications. Crummel took the nutrition session to heart, because she believes an improved, healthier diet helped her mother survive cancer.

Jones shared stories about women whose lifestyles improved while going through cancer treatment because of their dedication to the coaching sessions. In some cases, their families followed the tips as well and reaped health benefits.

Jones personalizes each meeting based on an individual’s needs. That might require digging up answers to new questions or offering recommendations that he found helpful during treatment, like asking for a hydration IV before getting chemotherapy.

No matter what the coaching sessions entail, he always finds the interactions inspiring.

“Our ladies in our N.E.A.T. program are so strong, they’re so resilient,” Jones said. “I have a very small part in this. I’m so humbled to have the opportunity to walk along beside them. To lift them up and encourage them when they are not doing well.”

Most N.E.A.T. participants are breast cancer patients, but the program is open to all cancer patients, Hunter said. Upon completion of the program, alumni will qualify for discounted gym memberships and can still attend N.E.A.T. exercise classes.

Jennifer Hunter oversees Texas Health’s nine fitness centers and wrote a grant last fall re-envisioning N.E.A.T. The program is offered at three Texas Health locations. It offers quarterly wellness seminars and
lifestyle coaching in addition to N.E.A.T.-specific exercise classes.

Hunter has received several “radiant” testimonies regarding the program, and oncologists keep asking about capacity limits. The referral-based program reached capacity within two months of the expansion to the Southwest and Dallas locations, she said.

Hunter hopes the program can expand to more Texas Health locations. Having lost family members to cancer and now being nearly eight years past her diagnosis, Hunter sees N.E.A.T. as an opportunity to pay it forward.

“Knowing you have this vision, how you can make that impact and actually seeing it firsthand and people’s written accounts, has been the most rewarding,” Hunter said. “That’s the thing for me. I know what it can do.”

Crummel and Gault’s decadeslong friendship has grown stronger while going through slightly different cancer journeys. Both women had lumpectomies, but Gault needed two surgeries to remove the entire tumor.

Participating in N.E.A.T. has also brought Crummel and Gault new friends whom they care about deeply. Joys and setbacks become shared experiences among the women.

“It’s the sisterhood of women with this commonality,” Gault said. “We both have great friends, but if they haven’t been through [cancer], it’s hard to explain it. Every time you get out of the shower, you’re reminded you have breast cancer.”

With the support, resources, knowledge and tools N.E.A.T supplies at their fingertips, Crummel and Gault feel empowered to live healthier lives and take on cancer.

“I want to squash [cancer],” Crummel said. “I want to do what I can.”