When Dave Jamieson entered the Alberta Cancer Exercise (ACE) study at the University of Alberta’s Cancer Rehabilitation Clinic for the first time, he was grieving his past self — his athletic, pre-cancer-journey self. He felt embarrassed about his dramatic weight loss, his face that seemed to be slipping down on one side and his lack of strength on the left side of his body, which left him looking and feeling off-balance. Little did he realize the program would soon change his life.
A well-known sports broadcaster on TSN 1260, Jamieson discovered something amiss with one side of his neck while shaving one morning back in May 2021. It seemed too thick. He felt fine but decided he’d better get it checked out. His doctor told him he had either a glandular infection — which could be treated with penicillin and gone in 10 days — or cancer.
After an emergency ultrasound and a followup CT scan two days later, Jamieson was sent to the University of Alberta Hospital to see head and neck oncologic surgeon Vincent Biron, who is also an associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. More tests and a biopsy later, the results were in. He had cancer — a three-centimetre tumour in his throat where a tonsil used to be. This type of HPV cancer might have been coursing through his body for 40 years, looking for a place to land.
When Jamieson asked the doctor how long he might have lived if he hadn’t spotted the tumour, Biron answered, “about a year.”
By the end of July, Jamieson was having surgery to remove the malignant tumour along with some surrounding lymph nodes in case the cancer had spread. The incision went from behind his left ear all the way to his chin. With nerve damage to his neck and face, and after undergoing several weeks of radiation treatment at the Cross Cancer Institute, Jamieson couldn’t speak (at first), or smell or taste.
Jamieson had to learn how to swallow again, a complicated process involving intricate co-ordination of the brain, cranial nerves and several muscles. Problems with swallowing can have a major effect on a person’s quality of life. For Jamieson, it meant eating was difficult. He lost strength, muscle mass and 40 pounds.
Luckily, a friend recommended he get involved with ACE — a five-year Alberta study to evaluate the implementation and effectiveness of a 12-week community-based exercise program. Run by instructors with cancer-specific education and training, it helps people better withstand and recover from cancer treatment.
Jamieson says it was a relief to find a safe and caring space where people had seen it all, had first-class training in how to meet his specific needs and weren’t afraid to challenge him.
“ACE is a place that is uplifting and supportive. It’s also challenging at times because of what they ask of you,” Jamieson explains. “But I began to feel better about myself. I could do this. I could get through cancer, at least this part of it.”
“The evidence supporting the benefits of exercise for side-effects, physical fitness and quality of life is strong,” says Margie McNeely, principal investigator of the Alberta-wide ACE study, professor in the Department of Physical Therapy in the U of A’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and director of the Cancer Rehabilitation Clinic.
“For some individuals cancer and its treatment can greatly impact their ability to function. When they try to return to their prior activities, they often feel worse, and this can be frustrating,” explains McNeely.
“In Dave’s case, his recovery was complicated by the profound weight and muscle mass loss, and the extensive nerve damage on his left side. His program was tailored to his cancer type and needs, and we monitored his response closely to ensure the exercise program challenged his fitness but was not too much.”
Jamieson didn’t expect to start with weightlifting and strength building. But those exercises not only helped improve his physical strength, they also helped reacquaint him with his own body and reawakened the sense that he had some control over it. When so much of his life felt out of his control, this was an important step forward.
Jamieson can’t speak highly enough of the people he worked with at the ACE program, such as McNeely, ACE project co-ordinator Chris Sellar and Cancer Rehab Clinic manager Elaine Gobeil, along with the graduate students and interns. Their expertise and encouragement helped him to build strength — physically and mentally. They also helped connect him with other services that could help, such as the Mobili-T app, a portable therapy system that helps head and neck cancer patients regain their ability to swallow.
Jamieson says, “I think ACE should be mandatory after-care for cancer patients.”
But as McNeely points out, “Our goal with ACE is to integrate exercise into the care of individuals undergoing treatment, recovering from cancer or living with incurable cancer. We have been very successful at implementing the program into the community setting; however, we are still a long way from exercise being incorporated as part of care.”
Jamieson is back on the air these days, co-hosting The Lowetide and Jamieson Show. His speech and strength have improved but he still struggles with swallowing at times, and needs to be careful he doesn’t choke.
“It’s been humbling. I’ve had to accept that I’m different,” he says. “But now there’s a clarity of purpose. I can’t call myself cancer-free for another four years yet, so I call myself cancer-adjacent. The cancer may be in me and may return — and you know, there’s a certain freedom to that. You might not like your situation, but you better find the best way possible to live within it.
“ACE was life-changing for me. After my sessions I felt optimistic — I felt better going out than I did coming in. And that says everything to me.”
Be part of life-changing research
ACE programs are offered in locations across Alberta, including a new cancer exercise study for participants in rural and remote communities.
To find out if you’re eligible to join a study, contact the ACE team.