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Helping Cancer Survivors Eat Better and Exercise More

Headshot of Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Cancer Researcher

Wendy is co-leading an NCI-supported project called AMPLIFY, which aims to help cancer survivors improve their quality of life by changing their eating and physical activity habits.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D.

It’s common wisdom that good nutrition and exercise are keystones for good health, and they are particularly important for cancer survivors, who face the risk of cancer recurrence among other health concerns. Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., works every day to help cancer survivors improve their lives through better nutrition and more physical activity. She practices what she preaches. She loves cooking tasty, healthy meals, and she enjoys ballroom dancing with her husband—the foxtrot and rumba are among her favorite dances.

A Detroit native and the first female in her family to graduate from college, Wendy obtained degrees in Michigan and New York in nutrition science and conducted cancer research in North Carolina and Texas before being recruited to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her research career has covered basic, clinical, and behavioral sciences, including studying how molecules in our food can affect cancer growth; nutrition-related concerns of cancer patients; and effective lifestyle interventions that improve the overall health of cancer survivors, particularly minority and rural populations.

AMPLIFYing Ways to Improve Cancer Survivor Health

Wendy currently leads the NCI-funded project AMPLIFY, which stands for Adapting MultiPLe behavior Interventions that eFfectivelY Improve Cancer Survivor Health. AMPLIFY is a web-based diet and exercise intervention designed to help participants lose an average of one pound per week. Emphasis is placed on adopting healthy dietary behaviors and increasing physical activity to lose body fat while preserving muscle. Long-term behavior change is the ultimate goal. “I’m interested in durable changes,” Wendy emphasized, “in which patients develop and maintain good habits, over multiple years.”

Alabama is an important place for Wendy’s work. With approximately three of every four residents considered overweight or obese, the state was ranked sixth in the nation for rates of adult obesity in 2020. It is also home to very large rural and African-American populations, which provide an opportunity for the intervention, if successful, to help reduce existing disparities. “The health disparities in Alabama are so great,” she said. “There’s so much to do that the opportunity to work here grabbed me.”

“I think of our work as ‘bench-to-trench,’” she explained. Her interdisciplinary team includes clinical psychologists, exercise and nutrition scientists, physicians, biostatisticians, and health economists. In designing AMPLIFY, Wendy drew on findings from her earlier NCI-funded research aimed at helping breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer survivors make behavioral changes that improve their quality of life and reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. Among these findings, women with breast cancer benefit from resistance training exercises, and cancer patients who receive counseling via telephone and mail, rather than in person, can become more active and achieve their weight management goals.

Wendy and her team designed AMPLIFY to be a scalable intervention. Organizations like the American Cancer Society, American Society of Clinical Oncology, hospitals, and large health systems were brought into the planning process early, so they could provide input into how the intervention should be designed to best help minority and rural populations facing health disparities.

AMPLIFY was set to begin in the spring of 2020, with more than 100 people already enrolled in the research study, including almost 40 minority participants. The launch was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but beta-testing has already yielded promising results.

“I learned how to watch my caloric intake and what foods to avoid,” said one beta-tester. “By following the study’s instructions and suggestions, I lost the desired pounds and more. Right now, I feel great!” 

Wendy and her team are finding ways to collect data safely during the pandemic and continue to advance their research in the face of these major challenges. Wendy hopes that AMPLIFY will expand in the future to help adolescent and childhood cancer survivors as well.

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