SOAR Program Helps Survivors Break Through Virtual Boundaries

By Pat Carragher - June 30, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we interact and communicate. Organizations, like Moffitt Cancer Center, had to rethink the way they offered programs and services to their patients. One program, Survivors Overcoming and Achieving Resiliency, or SOAR, helps breast cancer survivors transition from active treatment and promotes a healthy lifestyle through yoga, meditation, stress management, nutrition and exercise. The pandemic forced the in-person eight-week interactive workshop to shut down temporarily. But thanks to a grant extension from the Florida Breast Cancer Foundation, SOAR is back up and running virtually, opening up doors many patients had never had before.

SOAR began in 2018 and is a collaborative effort between Moffitt’s Survivorship Clinic, nutrition and rehab services, the Arts in Medicine Program and social work.

“It’s really a creation of a culture through virtual media and engaging patients,” said Dr. Smitha Pabbathi, director of Moffitt’s Survivorship Clinic. “We’re meeting where the survivors are not only physically in their home, but also emotionally and psychosocially. We talk about wellness recommendations to help patients in the clinic, but then how do these recommendations translate to actionable items when you leave that room?”

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"It’s really a creation of a culture through virtual media and engaging patients. We’re meeting where the survivors are not only physically in their home, but also emotionally and psychosocially."

- Dr. Smitha Pabbathi

The classes are paired with a weekly food demonstration with the goal of learning technique driven recipes that are delicious, simple and healthy. These cooking demos had previously been hosted at Moffitt’s McKinley campus pre-pandemic. Now, they are hosted in a virtual teaching kitchen from Sonya Pflanzer’s home.

“It was an opportunity to do something different,” said Pflanzer, a physician assistant in Moffitt’s Survivorship Clinic. “Previously when we met in person with the cooking demonstration it was very limited. Now with the teaching kitchen segment done in our homes I can demonstrate complete recipes and it is very interactive with our participants.”

The virtual format has not only provided more flexibility for participants, but also the presenters. Pflanzer had a family vacation planned during one of the sessions, but that didn’t stop her from taking the show on the road.

Salad with a yogurt-based cilantro lime dressing is one of the many dishes participants will learn how to make.

“We were going to the Florida Keys for spring break, but that week we were going Mediterranean for the virtual teaching kitchen and I couldn’t miss that,” Pflanzer said. “So I packed up my cameras and induction heat source and I did the teaching kitchen from the Keys. It really worked out well. I think it’s a good example that we can all prepare delicious healthy foods no matter where you are.”

At the beginning of the now virtual program, participants are sent a kit that includes a curriculum binder, an apron, exercise bands and arts and craft supplies. Tutorials are all completed over Zoom.

According to Diane Riccardi, one of SOAR’s program leaders and clinical dietitian in Moffitt’s Nutrition Therapy Department, groups are now trending more towards the younger demographic thanks to the virtual format. The program will be expanding this fall, going from eight to 10 weeks to add two dedicated classes to the teaching kitchen curriculum.

“These are women who have families that otherwise would have to cook dinner at 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday or they’re driving straight from work to get to class on time,” said Riccardi. “Before, most of our participants were not working, were retired or lived close by. We tried recruiting those younger people, but they couldn’t make the time commitment.”

Amanda Dugger with her daughter, Ellington

Amanda Dugger was 40 when she was diagnosed with HER2 positive breast cancer last September. She underwent a double mastectomy procedure in October, finished chemotherapy treatments in January and is scheduled to complete immunotherapy this fall.

“When SOAR started it seemed so nicely put together and well thought out,” said Dugger, who is also a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor. “I knew it was rather new virtually, but you couldn’t tell. It was so well prepared it looked like they had been doing this virtually since inception.”

At the height of her treatments, she was sometimes driving to Moffitt once a week.

“The last thing you want to do is get a babysitter, drive an hour, sit there for an hour and a half and then drive another hour home,” said Dugger, who is a mother to a one-year-old. “It was great that I was able to put the baby to bed or make sure my husband was available to take her, and then do the program and relax for the rest of the night. There were patients who were two hours away that were part of our group. I feel like there’s no way they would have opted in if it was not virtual.”

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