Alicia comes in like a whirlwind. It is clear that he knows the small gym well, the challenges of each machine, the ins and outs of all the devices. He jumps on top of one and starts exercising his arms. But today training will have to wait. He is fasting and in just a few minutes he will have to undergo intrathecal therapy, an injection that will go directly to his spinal cord to treat the leukemia that was diagnosed almost a year agowhen he had just turned 11.
Exercise is part of your treatment; Without a doubt it is the medicine he likes the most, and he can’t wait for the time of the session to arrive. This is one of my favorite places in the hospital, he says. And the smile hidden by her mask peeks into her blue eyes.
When they asked it, they also Helios, 12 years old, thought the idea of being able to incorporate physical activity into his therapy was fantastic. They told me it was beneficial, so What I think when I train is that I am accelerating the treatmenta little closer to healing with each step.
Both receive oncological treatment at the La Paz University Hospital in Madrid, which has what is called the Acceleratora non-pharmacological therapy unit created by the Unoentrecienmil Foundation that is designed to allow the practice of precision physical exercise in children with cancer and promote research in this area.
Exercise, another part of the treatment
The term treatment increasingly extends to more areas apart from pharmacology, including physical exercise. It is an area that has been seen to have a clear benefit in cancer patients, both physically and psychologically. And it is a part of the treatment that patients like, they enjoy while they are receiving it, he explains. Carlos Echecopara pediatric hematooncologist at the Madrid center, who remembers that the exercise is indicated in a personalized way, adapting to the needs and abilities of each person and to the moment of the illness in which the patient is.
corroborates it Roco Llorentephysiotherapist, graduate in Physical Activity and Sports Sciences and therapist responsible for the Accelerator, which cares for children and adolescents with cancer between 4 and 21 years old.
The training is always individualized, agreed upon with the doctors and after a constant reevaluation to adapt to how the patient is physically, how they have received the treatments, how they feel, if they are in the hospital or from home… If they leave very tired of the chemoMaybe that day’s training will be very short, a few minutes. And sometimes nothing can be done. There is always a study of the situation and needs first, explains Llorente.
Workouts are usually divided into a resistance part and a strength part. The bike or the treadmill are very aimed at reducing the fatigue caused by the treatments and the toxicity of therapies, Explain. Instead, strength exercises aim to reduce as much as possible the weakness and muscle breakdown associated with the disease and the aggressive therapies that allow it to be combated, he continues. We try to focus it so that they lose as little muscle mass as possible and that they can maintain a Good life quality During all the process.
For Alicia and Helios, the sessions are, above all, games and fun. But there is a lot of science behind each exercise.
It is explained by Carmen Fiuza, principal researcher at the Unoentrecienmil Accelerator, who has been studying the benefits of sport against different diseases for more than 20 years. There is clear evidence not only that exercise in children with cancer is safe but that it provides very positive effects. Little by little it is being incorporated into the clinic but at the moment there are few hospitals where it is available, he points out. Right now her team is embarking on a project with Accelerator patients to evaluate the changes that physical activity generates in the aerobic capacity, muscle strength or defenses of the patients.
We want to see how exercise impacts the patient’s quality of life and we want to see what happens at the level of the immune system, details. Another very important part of the project is to see if with different approaches we can increase patients’ adherence to exercise. One of these approaches has been the creation of a digital tool that allows the patient to have more motivation to participate in the sessions and see their evolution while helping the clinical and research team to collect data about their condition.
In addition, at the Accelerator, parents and siblings can also exercise with the children. The other day was one of the best for me because I was able to train with my sister, confirms Alicia. And Roco Llorente emphasizes her words: In a situation like this, the family becomes a bit of a doctor, nurse, teacher, etc. for their son and brother. So, coming to an area where you can play, have fun, let off steam or be with your child, simply being mother and son or brother and sister, I think It is something truly very special..
This is the debut of the disease
Both Alicia and Helios, who suffer from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common type of childhood cancer, are, one year after the diagnosis, in a maintenance therapeutic phase. This means fewer visits to the hospital and being able to recover some of the activities that the disease put on hold, such as training with their basketball teams, a sport of which the two Madrid residents are fans.
Helios has accounted for the 312 days exactly which elapsed between March 2, 2023 – the last day he practiced with his club before receiving the diagnosis – and January 9, 2024, when he was able to return to the team, Real Canoe.
It all started with what we thought it was sore throat, remembers Carlos, his father. We had just returned from a skiing trip and he had not recovered. He was very tired, he said his legs hurt, he had a little fever. At first they thought that the tonsils had not been taken care of well and they gave him antibiotics, but he did not improve. Then everything pointed to the fact that it could be mononucleosis. They did an analysis to clear up any doubts and everything came out. That night they already started the treatment. Imagine what a slap that is to the entire family.
Life changes you radically, agrees Teresa, Alicia’s mother. In her case, the initial confusion was even greater, because The little girl did not have any worrying symptoms. Alicia has celiac disease and in a routine check-up they saw that there were some values that did not match what was expected. They referred us directly to La Paz and upon arrival they did some tests but they told us to go home, that surely everything was fine. Three hours later they called us directly to enter. We went from thinking everything was perfect to having to stay in the hospital for weeks. He spent 20 days in the hospital on that first admission. And then to study from home, to avoid closed places, to leave the club… Of course, when they gave us the diagnosis my feeling was that suddenly there was an explosion of help and love. Everyone turned around. There we feel what is sometimes said about tribal education. Our family multiplied by 100,000, for which we are very grateful.
Like Helios, Alicia has also recently returned to training with her club, Villalba. But in these months she has always had basketball very present. Since she could not train indoors, her sisters Paula and Claudia recruited several friends to organize small outdoor training sessions. We were looking for a way, because it is something that I love, confesses Alicia, that she has been playing basketball since she was six years old and when she grows up she wants to be a basketball teacher and coach.
Helios, who wants to dedicate himself to marine biology when he grows up, also intends to always remain linked to sport. Yesterday, the little one participated in the presentation of the action Baskets against childhood cancer, a movement through which 3,000 teams from 16 autonomous communities have committed to exchange the points they score during the matches this weekend for euros for the fight against childhood cancer. The proceeds will go to the Unoentrecienmil Accelerator project, to make physical exercise possible for all children with cancer in hospitals.
Over the phone, just before hanging up, we ask Helios, who has told us his story, if there is anything else he wants to add. And he doesn’t even have to think about it: To all those who are going through this situation or to those who are going to go through it later. I would like to tell you that a lot of encouragement and a lot of strengthdon’t give up and trust that everything that involves exercising and getting stronger is going to help you.