Alberta Cancer Foundation

A Place to Thrive

Donna Kohle has always led an active life. The 45-year-old hit the gym regularly and took up running five years ago. She’s competed in half-marathons, as well as 10-kilometre and five-kilometre runs, and was going to run her first marathon when a breast cancer diagnosis in January 2011 put plans on hold.

Kohle tried to stay active despite feeling weak and nauseated from treatment but she hadn’t been back to her gym since the diagnosis. In March 2011, she saw a poster for the Thrive Centre – a gym at the University of Calgary for cancer patients and survivors.

TEAM UP: The Thrive team is headed by Dr. Nicole Culos-Reed (centre).

The Thrive Centre opened in January 2011 and the former multi-purpose room is located in the university’s kinesiology complex. Transforming the space into a fitness centre was no small task. The purchase of exercise machines, exercise balls, bands and weights, was largely due to a $250,000 donation from the Imperial Oil Foundation to the Alberta Cancer Foundation.

Though Imperial Oil has been bettering the communities in which it lives and operates for the better part of 100 years, it revamped processes and minted its Imperial Oil Foundation 10 years ago. In just the last decade, that foundation has invested $15 million annually into communities across Canada. Marilyn Kandt, vice-president of the Imperial Oil Foundation, says that this particular donation – funding for the Thrive Centre – fit a number of criteria and Imperial was keen to support this project. “There’s great research at the Thrive Centre,” Kandt says, “and it’s a great spot for people currently under treatment.”

Dr. Nicole Culos-Reed, associate professor of health and exercise psychology at the University of Calgary, spearheaded the initiative. She’s been researching the correlation between physical activity and quality of life in patients and survivors since 2001. “The biggest stumbling block, if you can get money, is finding space,” Culos-Reed says. The Thrive Centre is home for her research and to the many survivors and supporters who use the gym for personalized workouts after a fitness test in the lab. Workouts cater to the energy level a patient feels on a given day. It’s a big change for cancer patients who want to stay active but for whom regular public gym programming just isn’t working. Culos-Reed says most personal trainers don’t know how to create programs for cancer patients. “Our goal is to change that,” she says. “We don’t want to be the only people doing this.”

The Thrive Centre is monitored at all times by volunteers, the majority of whom are kinesiology students trained in exercises appropriate for specific cancer treatments. The Thrive Centre has 90 volunteers and a big part of their training involves how to provide emotional support. “Somebody will come in and exercise for 10 minutes, but talk to you for an hour,” says Kevin Boldt, the Thrive Centre’s volunteer coordinator and third-year student at the University of Calgary. “They don’t always want to exercise; sometimes they just want somebody to be with them.”

Kohle says that being surrounded by people going through the same issues is comforting. It means being able to go to the gym without facing uncomfortable stares from people because of her bandana, lack of hair or surgical scars. It also meant she was able to carry on an annual tradition.

“Every September, a girlfriend and I do a half-marathon in Canmore. I was kind of mad I wouldn’t be able to do it last year, but my friend encouraged me to register anyway and if I was up to it, we’d go out there and just do what I could, even if I just walked some of it,” Kohle says, then a smile spreads across her face. “I ran the 10K. It wasn’t my best time, but I ran it.”

Get on Your Bike: Whether you are interested in getting back to the gym or volunteering, find out more about the Thrive Centre. Visit or call 403-210-8482.