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Pioneering therapy

Alumna develops programs to help cancer survivors

If one were to distill to two concepts Shannon Bozoian Mihalko's ('92) lifelong association with Wake Forest, "early intervention" and "sports and exercise" would sum it up nicely.

Shannon Bozoian Mihalko ('92)
Shannon Bozoian Mihalko ('92)

The early intervention came from her parents, Dick ('72) and Sandra Buchanan ('70) Bozoian, who met while they were students at the College. "Growing up, I would visit campus with them, and I was always struck by how friendly everyone was," she recalls. "It was a strikingly different kind of place."

As for sports and exercise, her dad had played on the 1970 ACC championship football team. As an undergraduate, she majored in health and sport science, known now as health and exercise science. As a graduate student at Illinois, where she earned three degrees, she met her future husband, Ryan Mihalko, who had played football at Notre Dame in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Irish won a national championship.

Now, back at her alma mater for the past eight years as a faculty member in her major department, she is still engaged in early interventions and exercise, albeit of a different kind. She does pioneering work with older adults who've had cancer, encouraging them to begin an exercise regimen immediately after their surgeries and treatments to restore their bodies and spirits.

Mihalko, an associate professor who teaches health psychology and health statistics, develops with her collaborators—who include departmental colleagues Stephen Messier, Gary Miller and Paul Ribisl, along with Roger Anderson of the Division of Public Health Sciences and Edward Levine of Surgical Oncology on the Bowman Gray Campus—strategies to promote confidence in older adults suffering from chronic diseases to participate in restorative physical activity earlier than is customary.

In one study titled RESTORE, she had women who had undergone breast cancer surgery doing walking and upper-body weight lifting as early as four weeks after their operations. "Physical activity as part of cancer rehabilitation is a novel approach," she notes. "But if a surgical patient is not physically active at the start, she can lose flexibility, strength and range of motion fairly quickly.

"We've found that exercise has a positive impact on their psychological state as well," says Mihalko, who received her doctoral degree in health psychology. "We conduct group behavioral sessions with the subjects so that they figure out for themselves why physical activity is important. [Exercise] naturally helps with their emotional recovery and helps them build the confidence to get back into their regular daily activities."

Mihalko recently launched a new study with Suzanne Danhauer, a researcher and clinician at the Comprehensive Cancer Center of Wake Forest University, and Heidi Klepin, a geriatric oncologist at the School of Medicine. The study will focus on older adults who have been diagnosed with acute leukemia, a virulent and usually fatal form of cancer requiring six to eight weeks of hospital-based therapy, and will include in-hospital physical interventions, including walking, stretching and strength training.

"These will be tools they can take home with them," Mihalko says, "and perhaps prepare them to withstand and endure more intensive therapies to come."

— David Fyten
Office of Creative Services

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