Patients at the Get Real and Heel facility in Chapel Hill. (Photo © Kevin Seifert for EXSS)
Patients at the Get Real and Heel facility in Chapel Hill. (Photo © Kevin Seifert for EXSS)

Those who have undergone cancer treatments know that treatments come with difficult side effects, most notably fatigue. For some, side effects extend to pain, loss of muscle mass, loss of strength, depression, nausea and shortness of breath. UNC’s Get Real and Heel program seeks to minimize the effects of cancer treatment with simple, consistent exercise coupled with social support. Patients who exercise prior, during and post cancer treatments report less fatigue and improved strength, endurance, metabolism, stress management and most importantly, quality of life.

Dr. Claudio Battaglini saw firsthand how consistent exercise could change the trajectory of a cancer patient’s quality of life when he was an exercise science graduate student at the University of Northern Colorado. The former triathlete coach had no doubt that exercise training improved performance. It was not until Dr. Battaglini began working with his first patient that he saw the transformative effect of exercise on cancer patients. Seeing this transformation firsthand reformed Dr. Battaglini’s research to focus on exercise science and oncology. He recalls realizing that the “feeling to help someone live another day is better than any feeling of winning a gold medal.”

Soon after earning his PhD from the University of Northern Colorado, Dr. Battaglini was recruited by Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to “do something special” at UNC. Dr. Battaglini worked with recreation therapist Dr. Diane Groff to develop a center that would combine exercise and psychosocial therapies to improve quality of life for cancer patients. The center, Get Real and Heel, began with just 15 breast cancer patients. Today, close to 100 patients exercise for an hour three times a week with trainers DJ Amatuli and Jean Owen who are the day-to-day face of the program, and many student interns who are always encouraging participants to work their hardest. This straightforward exercise regime along with the social support from being part of a community made a night and day difference for Get Real and Heel’s early patients. Dr. Battaglini explains that the program works because chemotherapy and radiation are just so hard on our bodies, aging patients upwards of 10 years physiologically. Consistent, moderate exercise helps reduce the strain that cancer treatments put on the body.

UNC Medicine’s Aime Mitchell (pictured with nephew George) cites Get Real and Heel as a crucial part of her cancer recovery.
UNC Medicine’s Aime Mitchell (pictured with nephew George) cites Get Real and Heel as a crucial part of her cancer recovery.

More than 2,000 patients have benefited from Get Real and Heel’s programming since Doctors Battaglini and Groff founded the center in 2006. One of these patients is Aime Mitchell, Senior Director of Operations at UNC Medicine. “This program was an important part of my recovery. After finishing chemo and radiation, the last thing I wanted to do was exercise. Get Real and Heel was a nice re-entry into my exercise routine; a pleasant workout environment and a community of survivors who share stories and advice. I have continued to work out for two years post-chemo and will continue as long as I can. I am also very passionate about the success of the program and am helping with the efforts to expand.”

The program currently serves 100 patients per week in their facility located just off campus in the Laurel Hill area of Chapel Hill. The current facility has only three treadmills and three stationary bikes. To serve existing and new patients more effectively, Get Real and Heel needs to expand the physical space and update equipment. The staff of Get Real and Heel has grown with the recent addition of Carly Bailey, MA, a dedicated liaison between physical activity programs, like Get Real and Heel, Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the community.

Dr. Battaglini has a vision to continue growing the program so it can meet the needs of the growing number of cancer patients. He hopes to double the size of the Get Real and Heel facility so UNC Medicine fellows and residents, physical therapist, psychologists, and other supportive programs can work one-on-one with patients.

Over time, Dr. Battaglini would like for Get Real and Heel to serve cancer patients even before they begin treatment, working with them so they go into their cancer treatments as strong and healthy as possible.

“I have recommended Get Real and Heel to many women across the country. This is not just an exercise program – it is a goal-oriented support group, a place to celebrate accomplishments, a strength and confidence builder and a way to get back to normal life after cancer treatments.” – Sylvia Hatchell, Head Coach, UNC Women’s Basketball

For more information on how to support Get Real and Heel and other programs, please contact Eli Jordfald, Senior Director – Major Gifts, at eli_jordfald@med.unc.edu or 919-843-5202.

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