David Johnston: Wellspring’s exercise program transforms prostate cancer patient’s blood results

June 26, 2024

On his first official day of retirement, David Johnston was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “Unfortunately, this, and the pandemic, meant that all my retirement plans had to be cancelled,” says David.

But it took one long and frustrating year to get to that point.

Despite having a family history of prostate cancer, David’s doctor did not conduct regular Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) testing, which is used to detect whether someone has prostate cancer. It took David finding blood in his urine to eventually be referred to a urologist who did the blood test which showed his PSA levels were high – a sign that prostate cancer could be present. After a series of tests and imaging, including a biopsy, all results came back negative. However, the urologist saw something of note in an MRI and referred David to another urologist who had more sophisticated biopsy technology.

By the time the prostate cancer was eventually found through the second biopsy a year later, David’s PSA levels moved from intermediate risk to high risk. Surgery to remove the cancer happened three months after the second biopsy, but unfortunately, the cancer had already spread outside of the prostate capsule. “This part was quite scary as it was unclear if the cancer had metastasized,” David says. Because the cancer was still present, David had to undergo radiation therapy and two years of Androgen Deprivation Therapy (ADT)—a notoriously unpleasant therapy used to treat prostate cancer.

“They refer to ADT as having a “constellation of side effects” and unfortunately, I experienced most of them,” David says.

Some of the mental and physical side effects David experienced over two years were hot flushes, loss of sleep, joint pain, chronic fatigue, aphasia, spatial cognition issues, and to top it off, his blood lipids skyrocketed. Elevated cholesterol and triglycerides, also known as blood lipids, are a known side effect of ADT. The body only needs a small amount of lipids to function, and too many meant David was at more risk of getting a heart attack or a stroke.

Thankfully, about one year into ADT, David heard about Wellspring’s exercise program. At the time, David learned of the Canadian Urological Association guidelines about ADT management strategies, recommending that ADT patients should incorporate exercise into their daily lives [1]. “Wellspring fits this need for prostate cancer patients so well, especially men on ADT,” David says.

Along with seeing a dietician, David joined Wellspring’s exercise program. He very quickly started noticing impressive results. “When I began exercising at Wellspring, all my lipids came back down to normal levels. My triglycerides, which had been very high, dropped significantly. Everything was going in the right direction, and a lot of it had to do with the exercise I was doing at Wellspring,” he says.

Since being diagnosed in 2020, David, who is a passionate advocate for men’s health, has worked with many prostate cancer researchers across Toronto and Halifax, offering his unique insight and firsthand experience with prostate cancer. This includes a 5-year research project currently being led by the University of Toronto about the interactions between exercise and cancer treatment outcomes. “I wrote to the professor and explained how exercising at Wellspring helped to bring my lipids down. I gave them all my blood data, which showed that in six months my cholesterol, my triglycerides, my weight, everything, came down to normal levels, and it was only from diet and exercise—not medication,” David says.

Wellspring’s Physical and Functional Program Manager, Melisa Luong, who is also a registered physiotherapist, says it is common to see these positive impacts after participants complete Wellspring’s 12-week exercise program. “Exercise is crucial to maintaining overall health in cancer patients. When we exercise, typically we get more oxygen in all our vital organs. So essentially, exercise helps our overall physical and mental function – including fatigue[2],” she says.

Like all of Wellspring’s programs, the exercise program was developed by professionals through extensive research, and it’s available at no cost to participants. Melisa says, “Research has shown that when you perform both aerobic and resistance exercise with moderate intensity, 2-3 times per week for at least 12 weeks, your overall quality of life both during and after treatment significantly improves. We developed our exercise program around this research and its benefits[3].”

Exercise program participants can expect a range of exercises over 12-weeks, all led by registered kinesiologists and physiotherapists. As part of Wellspring’s discharge protocol, after the 12-weeks, program leaders will talk participants through next steps on how to maintain their physical activity moving forward. Wellspring also offers a catalog of self-paced exercise programs online, which they can refer to at any time, no matter where they are on their cancer journey. “Not only do we help to guide participants through aerobic and resistance training, but we also offer education sessions on topics such as pain, bone health, stress and anxiety, and nutrition,” Melisa says.

Undoubtedly, Wellspring’s exercise program positively impacts the physical health of its participants. But it also improves mental health. “Everybody was there for the same reason, and we were having a lot of fun despite the circumstances,” says David.

An important aspect of the exercise program is the sense of community participants gain when attending these sessions. These individuals are all people living with cancer who are on similar journeys to one-another. “There is a great sense of camaraderie and community during the program, which in turn positively impacts their mental health,” Melisa says.

The link between mental health and exercise has been long proven beneficial, and David says that through Wellspring, his mental health significantly improved. “I remember feeling like I was in this deep pit trying to climb out, and people kept throwing dirt at me. But Wellspring really changed that outlook to be more positive. Wellspring gave me hope when I was down, and I felt wonderful after attending each Wellspring exercise program session—it gave me the confidence and motivation to do more,” he says.

Melisa says success stories like David’s are why it’s important for Wellspring to continue to provide services free-of-charge for cancer patients, which is only possible through the help of generous donations. “We use professional leaders to run these programs, which can be costly. Wellspring doesn’t receive any core government or hospital funding; we rely solely on donations. If you’d like to contribute to Wellspring and our programs, consider donating – any amount goes a long way, and can significantly improve health outcomes for people in our community, like David,” says Melisa.

Donate to Wellspring today: https://wellspring.ca/ways-to-give/donate/



[1] https://www.cua.org/system/files/Guideline-Files/7355_v8.pdf



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