Bright Mind: Dr Kirstie Suderman

A love of exercise and a challenging personal experience drove Dr. Kirstie Suderman to become both a physical therapist and researcher in cancer exercise and rehab

By: Colleen Biondi

Photograph by Lindsay Elliott.

Kirstie Suderman has always been active. For years, she used cross-country skiing, hiking and biking to combat stress and connect with family and friends. This love of movement led to her earning a kinesiology undergraduate degree in 2011 from the University of Alberta (U of A), and, in 2012, she was accepted into the master of physical therapy program at the U of A.

But then, life took a turn. 

Suderman was training for a triathlon when she developed a deep vein thrombosis — a blood clot in a vein far beneath the surface of the body — in her left leg. She underwent two years of rehabilitation to restore nerve function and re-learn to walk. Her dream to pursue graduate studies in physical therapy was derailed.  

This challenging experience inspired her to advocate for the needs of patients. Today, Suderman is a physical therapist and researcher. Her career began in 2015, when Suderman approached Dr. Margaret McNeely, professor in the department of physical therapy and director of the Cancer Rehabilitation Clinic at the U of A, about helping deliver a new exercise program as part of a study for individuals living with cancer. The study was the Alberta Cancer Exercise Feasibility Trial. It taught cancer survivors how to incorporate gentle aerobic and resistance exercises into their weekly routine. Suderman spent a year there as a research assistant for McNeely, helping patients with their exercise programs and collecting data. She saw the positive results firsthand — participants talked about increased stamina and strength, decreased fatigue and improved everyday functioning.

“That made me want to pursue a career in cancer research,” says Suderman. 

In 2015, Suderman was accepted as the first student in a combined master of science degree in physical therapy and a PhD in rehabilitation sciences in the faculty of rehabilitation medicine at the U of A. For seven years, Suderman juggled the demanding combination of coursework and clinical rotations to become a physical therapist and complete her doctoral studies. 

Dr. Kristie Suderman is a physical therapist and researcher. Here, she demonstrates an upper back stretch. Photograph by Lindsay Elliott.

With McNeely as her doctoral supervisor, Suderman led research studies focusing on patient engagement in cancer-specific exercise. Her first study took place in 2016: it was a sub-study of the feasibility trial and examined barriers to exercise participation. As part of her doctoral studies, Suderman conducted focus groups with 33 individuals living with cancer before and after their participation in the feasibility trial. The results were clear and consistent: participants said they were interested in exercise as part of their care and recovery, and that they wanted programs to be run by trained exercise professionals in community-based settings (not at hospitals). Results also found that few health-care providers had informed them about the value of exercise throughout the cancer journey. In fact, 93 per cent of participants self-referred for the trial. 

“There is a lot going on with clinical interaction,” says Suderman, adding that the feedback they got from participants was that “exercise was a low priority” for health-care providers who were often more focused on discussing acute cancer treatments. “Further understanding is needed regarding the poor rates of reported physical activity by individuals with cancer, despite robust evidence of benefits for exercise towards oncology disease-related symptoms.”

Suderman’s next study in 2020 was a sub-study of a subsequent five-year, province-wide initiative called the Alberta Cancer Exercise (ACE) effectiveness-implementation study. (ACE is led by McNeely and Dr. Nicole Culos-Reed from the University of Calgary.) Suderman surveyed 127 patients in the ACE study about virtual exercise programming. There were two groups: 88 individuals who had participated in the exercise programming in-person and 39 had participated virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. All respondents expressed concern about the risks of in-person exercise during the pandemic. Respondents also reported they would be interested in virtual options, but were wary about technological issues and wondered how emotional support — easily provided during in-person exercising — could be realized with virtual exercise options. These findings helped inform virtual exercise programming and make it more accessible for individuals with cancer. 

Suderman says making exercise a standard of care, along with traditional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, will require more than educating health-care providers and patients about its importance. She adds that it will also require creating and implementing more widely accessible community-based exercise programming and encouraging patients to participate during one of the most vulnerable times of their lives. 

Suderman successfully completed her PhD in December 2022. Since March 2023, she has been a co-investigator with the Control 4 Life study, which is designed to explore the importance of education and exercise to address pelvic, sexual and metabolic health for men following prostate cancer surgery. 

Suderman says working in this field as a researcher, clinician and advocate to help patients live fully with and beyond cancer has been both a privilege and an honour. 

“It is the most rewarding experience I have ever had.”

Suderman says one way to make exercise a standard of care is to create and implement more widely accessible community-based exercise programs. Photograph by Lindsay Elliott.

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