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Leader Among Us 2015

Story and photos reprinted with permission of the Southern Illinoisan

Anton named one of top ten leaders in southern IllinoisDr. Phil Anton highlighted as one of the ten Southern Illinoisans who have made a positive impact on their communities.

You may call them cases of divine inspiration or times when the planets seem to align and everything just clicks. Dr. Phil Anton of Carbondale calls them “llght bulb moments,” and they have been commonplace in his life.

Anton, an associate professor of exercise physiology at Southern Illinois University, is the exercise program director of Strong Survivors, a collaborative effort that offers free exercise as a therapeutic tool to help cancer survivors and caregivers. The story of his involvement in — and even the creation of the program itself — requires illumination from several light bulb moments.

A native of Hastings, Michigan, Anton, 44, was always interested in exercise. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education and health and began his career teaching health and PE in elementary schools. After a couple of years, the light bulbs began going off.

Light bulb moment No. 1+ -

Realizing that he liked teaching physical education, but discovering it was not the challenge he wanted. Desiring to be more involved in exercise science and presented with an opportunity to move to Colorado, Anton began graduate studies in kinesiology and applied physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, working in the school’s cardiovascular lab.

“It was challenging and fun, but I wasn’t sure that cardio research was where I wanted to be,” he recalls.

A friend reminded him of how he enjoyed teaching and asked if he had ever thought about teaching at the collegiate level.

“I came out of my own shell when I was in college, so I really felt a strong connection to someone at that point in their life. I started looking at college teaching jobs and realized that I needed a Ph.D. One of the schools that I looked at was the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley.”

He says he enrolled there because the college had a reputation for turning out graduates who could teach.

Light bulb moment No. 2+ -

“I went to Greeley without any idea of what I wanted to do in terms of research,” he remembers. “Luckily enough, I was assigned to Dr. Carolyn Dennehy as my research adviser. She asked me what I wanted to do, and I didn’t have a clue. She asked if I had ever heard of cancer rehab and I said, ‘Cancer re-what?’”

Anton says that Dennehy explained that she and a colleague, Carole Schneider, had just started the Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute and that they were using exercise as a therapeutic tool to help cancer survivors get through their treatment and recovery period.

Her statement could not have been more poignant for Anton. Just a few years prior, he had lost a cousin — “his best friend,” he says — after a five-year battle with cancer. Following her death, he says he desperately wanted to do something that would give back to people recovering from the disease.

“I thought about how I love to teach exercise — that’s my passion — and to be able to incorporate that in working with cancer survivors, it was the perfect fit.”

Light bulb moment No. 3+ -

Fast-forward to 2004. Anton and his wife, Julie Partridge, had moved to Carbondale. Partridge had accepted a tenure-track position to teach in the Department of Kinesiology at SIU. Anton says he “was lucky enough to be hired to teach a few exercise science classes.” It was in a casual conversation with one of his former professors from Northern Colorado that Anton discovered he was not the only person in Southern Illinois with an interest in cancer rehabilitation.

Anton found out that Jerry Bechtel of John A. Logan College had gone out to the Rocky Mountain Institute to visit the facility because he wanted to start a program like that at Logan.”

He also learned that Southern Illinois Healthcare had applied for and received a grant to fund a program for cancer survivors.

“I thought I was the only person in the entire region interested in cancer rehabilitation, and when they learned about me, their reaction was that this was meant to be.”

A few meetings later, the Strong Survivors program began, enrolling participants beginning in 2005. Exercise classes for survivors first were offered just at John A. Logan College, where cancer survivors can exercise, gain nutritional information and get support completely free of charge. Later, the Cancer Rehabilitation Center was opened at SIU, giving participants two locations from which to choose. To date, 420 cancer survivors have participated in the collaborative effort of John A. Logan College, Southern Illinois Healthcare and SIU.

“Our rule is that if you’ve survived the words, ‘You have cancer,’ you are a cancer survivor. It doesn’t matter if it was last week or 20 years ago, you are eligible for our program,” Anton explains.

He says the program is unique in the Midwest.

“We’re able to keep the program free because of the SIU students in our academic program,” he says. “They are all assigned as a personal trainer to a Strong Survivor. They’re often looking for experience, but they come away with more of a personal revelation about what they want to do. It goes both ways. The participants learn from them and they learn from the participants.”

With the addition of the SIU facilities, Strong Survivors has been able to double the number of participants. Anton says he hopes development of SIH’s Cancer Institute will allow for further collaboration and even more expansion of Strong Survivors. The results and reaction to the program have been outstanding.

“If there is another word for positive to describe the reaction from participants that is more descriptive than positive, I would choose that word,” he says. “That’s from the survivors and caregivers, as well as the students and from others in the community who realize what kind of resource this is,” he adds. “I see this as a service to the community. The participants are able to learn that they can do so much. It’s fun to watch that happen.”