‘Exercise is such a dirty word’: Virginia patient, trainer on moving through lung cancer

Frank McKenna was in incredible physical shape in 2016, with more than 25 years as a personal trainer, including in his Beach Better Bodies studio, in Virginia Beach, Virginia — then he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer that had spread to his bones.

As a never-smoker, McKenna was one of the growing number of young, otherwise healthy people being diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.

Frank McKenna and other patients, doctors and advocates are on Capitol Hill, during the American Lung Association’s “Lung Force Advocacy Day,” on March 20, 2024. (Courtesy Frank McKenna)

“It was quite a shock to be diagnosed, not only with ‘a’ cancer, but with lung cancer,” McKenna told WTOP. McKenna and other patients, doctors and advocates are on Capitol Hill, during the American Lung Association’s “Lung Force Advocacy Day,” on Wednesday.

His initial treatment of a chemotherapy pill and radiation didn’t work — within months his cancer was spreading. However, biomarker testing found that McKenna had a specific cancer mutation that could be treated with a one-pill-a-day targeted therapy.

During his first treatment, between the cancer itself and the side effects, McKenna’s exercise regimen stopped.

“I wasn’t working out, because I didn’t have the energy,” said McKenna. “But in my mind I knew I needed to get back to some kind of physical activity.”

Within days of beginning targeted therapy, McKenna was back in the gym.

“Just getting some movement,” McKenna said. “Exercise is often such a dirty word, especially when you’re not feeling well.”

As he started to feel better, McKenna said, he thought, “I need to use my education as a personal trainer, and I need to use my unfortunate education with cancer, in order to help other people get movement into their lives.”

As an example: “When you put something into the microwave, as you’re heating up your coffee, why not do a couple of pushups off the counter. Why not do a couple of lunges while you’re standing there in the kitchen?”

Now, McKenna, who has added certification as a Cancer Exercise Specialist to his personal trainer resume, runs six-week programs that combine fitness, yoga and wellness — what he calls “the mental part of dealing with cancer.”

Cancer patients face more than physical challenges: “How do I get up and do these things? How do I handle the stresses of scans, and medications, and treatments and how do I just go through my daily life? What are some things I can do to help me mentally, while I’m helping myself, physically.”

While some cancer patients train for, and run marathons during treatment, McKenna said the benefits of movement are much more attainable and quickly observed.

“Just to be able to get up and enjoy your life, and to be able to get down on the ground if you need to, with your grandchildren, or take a walk in the park with your loved ones,” said McKenna. “Just getting out and getting active.”

The benefits of exercise for cancer patients — as well as people without cancer — are part of a domino effect.

“Mental fitness and physical fitness are so entwined,” said McKenna. “When you’re both working on the same page, together, it can get some great benefits for people going through a cancer diagnosis.”

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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