Circle of Hope funds pilot project to improve survivors’ quality of life

Daniel Hughes, Ph.D.
Daniel Hughes, Ph.D.

Daniel Hughes, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio and a member of the Mays Cancer Center’s Population Science and Prevention Program, is a certified clinical exercise physiologist who implements bio-behavior interventions with a special focus toward Latino cancer survivors and their quality of life after battling cancer.

Dr. Daniel Hughes and his team
The pilot research project is being performed by (front row from left) Lauren Kurhajec, Rebekah Ortiz, Alejandra Ordaz, Angelika Lapetoda, Dr. Nydia Darby, Morgan Hoffmann, (back row from left) Kerry Wiegand, Dr. Alexis Ortiz, Dr. Daniel Hughes, Devin Odvody, Devon Thomey and Nathaniel Castaneda.

Dr. Hughes previously focused his research with breast cancer survivors but wanted to expand his studies to all cancer survivors. With $25,000 from an SA Cancer Council Circle of Hope and matching funds from the Mays Cancer Center, Dr. Hughes is launching a one-year pilot project designed to prove the concept and initial effectiveness of a holistic, individualized yet structured approach to optimizing outcomes for physical, mental and spiritual aspects of quality of life.

The study is open to any adult who has had a cancer diagnosis and is in any stage of treatment.

“We are proposing changing the entire mentality of survivorship intervention,” he said. “We are wanting to engage a holistic approach that is tailored to each survivor so we can maximize all aspects of their individual quality of life.”

Participants will undergo a 16-week intervention that will include:

  • Yoga-based exercise including meditation
  • Additional exercise prescription as needed
  • Diet guidance as needed
  • Psycho-social support based on tailored messages specific to each individual participant to enhance ownership of health- enhancing behaviors

Research participants will return six months later for follow-up assessments to gauge long-term effectiveness of this novel approach.

“This pilot project will include comprehensive assessment of physical functioning, blood biomarkers, mental health and overall well-being to determine all benefits of engaging in this intervention,” he said. Participants will use a telehealth application to receive continuous tailored intervention and communication.

Researchers will tailor the intervention plans to each participant’s individual motivation characteristics profile. “People are motivated by different things at different times in their lives. We must base the intervention on each person’s individual characteristics including daily motivation,” he said. “By using the telehealth application, we can communicate with participants in their preferred manner and preferred times.”

The telehealth platform also will allow their compliance to be monitored throughout the project as well as allow participants to communicate directly with the research staff.

The holistic and individual interventions must be structured and measurable for the team to truly assess impact so results can be shared as recommendations to the overall cancer survivor community, Dr. Hughes said. Although “hard” scientific data will be collected based on human physiology and validated psycho-social instruments, cancer survivors will also self-report perceptions of outcome, which will be critically important to understanding the true individual impact of intervention, he added.

“We hope the pilot project helps individuals who participate in the study, but the ultimate goals, of course, are more global in nature. By expanding this research to the entire cancer survivor community, what we learn here can be disseminated to effectively reduce cancer-related health disparities, improve the health of the general cancer survivor population, and reduce the excessive cost on an already strained public health system,” he said.

Dr. Hughes said he originally wrote the research proposal in 2018 and was informed in 2019 by Director Ruben Mesa, M.D., FACP, of the project’s funding from a Circle of Hope and the Mays Cancer Center. “I speak for myself and my team when I say we are humbled and so honored the program was chosen.”

After receiving approval from the Institutional Review Board in late December 2019, his team began recruiting the first 30 participants and quickly built a waiting list of interested survivors. The study launched in February 2020.

Research is being conducted by Dr. Hughes and a trans-disciplinary team of impressive researchers, including Alexis Ortiz, Ph.D., co-principal investigator; and Amelie Ramirez, Dr.P.H., co-investigator and director of the Institute for Health Promotion Research (IHPR). Therapeutic yoga specialist Nydia Darby, D.P.T., is serving as a consultant.

Research coordinators are Angelika Lapetoda, Corina Zamora and Becky Ortiz. Additional investigators lending their expertise include Darpan Patel, Ph.D.; Lisa Kilpela, Ph.D.; Brandi Cuevas, M.S.; Edgar Munoz, M.S.; Luz M. Garcini, Ph.D.; Monica Serra, Ph.D.; and Dorothy Long-Pharma, M.D.

The research team is assisted by an external advisory group of four cancer survivors.
“When I first started in the field after jumping careers, it hadn’t been that many years since cancer survivors were told to take it easy and not do anything physical. Years ago, one of my aunts was told not to move her arm or do anything physical after having breast cancer surgery,” he said. “We now understand there are no adverse effects of properly designed exercise for cancer survivors. We know that by taking an individualized approach we can improve the quality of life for all survivors with the ultimate goal to not just improve but maximize their outcomes; with what we know now, our technologies and focusing on each individual we truly can improve the future landscape for cancer survivorship.”

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In the 2019 issue of Mays Cancer Center Annual Report

The mission of the Mays Cancer Center, home to UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson, is to reduce the cancer burden in South Texas through the highest quality cancer care, groundbreaking research aimed at reducing the incidence and mortality of cancer, education of future cancer scientists and clinicians, and cancer prevention programs focused on our unique population.

View the 2019 issue

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