An Exercise in Recovery
On her daily walks across the campus and in her neighborhood, Dr. Bernardine M. Pinto, a professor at UofSC and a cancer survivor, shows from her own research how exercise promotes recovery from the disease.
The slender woman with luminous brown eyes and a quick wide smile speaks with both academic expertise and personal experience. “When you see me on the Horseshoe, I’m walking the walk as well as talking the talk,” says the associate dean for research and professor in the College of Nursing. She is a 2021 recipient of a distinguished Breakthrough Leadership in Research Award bestowed by UofSC for her significant contributions.
A clinical psychologist, Pinto grew up in India, where she studied at Bangalore University before coming to this country for doctoral studies. “I was really interested in clinical psychology and its scope for helping people, so I saved my salary as a lecturer in psychology at a local college for a one-way airplane ticket to the United States,” she says. Although she still is an international traveler, that one ticket propelled her to become a U.S. citizen and achieve a notable academic career with influence across the globe.
After getting her doctorate from Western Michigan University, she first began studying the benefits of exercise in cardiovascular health as a faculty member at the School of Medicine at Brown University. She had already embraced regular exercise as a personal value when she began to focus on its importance in cancer recovery. She was a recognized international authority on the subject when she received her cancer diagnosis, providing a deep and profound personal perspective. Speaking of her own experience as a cancer survivor, she recalls, “I’ve always practiced brisk walking, maintained a healthy weight, and had been very diligent about getting regular mammograms, so I was shocked when I received my cancer diagnosis. It was a scary time even though I had worked with cancer patients for almost 20 years prior to that time.”
Like so many, she turned to family, friends, and colleagues for support during surgery and postoperative treatment. Her mother living in Canada, and her sister, in the United Kingdom, flew to the states to be by her side. “Through it all, I kept as active as I could - usually, it would take me about a week after chemotherapy to start feeling strong enough to walk on my treadmill, and then, it was time for the next cycle. I knew that it was important not to gain weight, so since then, I have maintained a regular walking schedule,” she said.
Pinto initially began her research on the importance of exercise in disease recovery during a postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University and Miriam Hospital, its teaching affiliate at the Warren Alpert Medical School. Having done her dissertation on the importance of breast self-examination skills, she especially was moved by the experience of a participant in one of her initial studies who used the training she got through Pinto to detect a suspicious lump that proved to be cancerous. “I saw how scared she was, and she was so grateful she was able to recognize the growth and get the treatment she needed,” she said.
“People are told to exercise by their healthcare providers, but they need help to get them motivated, to address the barriers they face, and then to stay active,” she says. Patients in her studies have reported less fatigue and greater energy, and higher self-esteem. Because some patients don’t want to return to the hospital for follow-up activities unless necessary, Pinto has developed home-based programs. “I’ve focused on programs that reach patients where they are, helping them to exercise in their home environments, so they are not required to go to a gym and are more likely to maintain exercise.”
In 2010, Pinto was one of the experts on the international team for the American College of Sports Medicine that developed specific exercise guidelines for cancer patients, later updated in 2019. “The work I’ve done with promoting exercise to help cancer patients recover preceded my diagnosis by many years,” she observes. She is especially gratified that the importance of exercise in recovery has now been so widely substantiated since there was skepticism when she first launched her initial studies in the 1990s.
Along with proven guidance on how exercise promotes recovery, Pinto shares her own firsthand experience in encouraging patients. “Although cancer diagnosis and treatment impact your life and your family tremendously, there is hope, and there are things you can do to recover and stay as healthy as possible,” she says.
“Becoming and staying physically active is one way you can help your body recover, become more fit, more energized, and improve your mood by reducing feelings of depression and anxiety. It helps blow away the cobwebs.” She adds, “Unlike medications, surgeries, and other treatments, there are few drawbacks or side effects from being active,” emphasizing, “It’s something you can do for yourself rather than something that is done to you. Family and friends can also support survivors in their efforts to stay active.”
Recently, Pinto was appointed co-director of the Cancer Survivorship Center at the College of Nursing. She looks forward to helping the center grow, mentoring faculty who do excellent research on other aspects of cancer survivorship, and offering students opportunities in cancer survivorship research.
Currently, Pinto is developing a web-based patient education and exercise program funded by the National Cancer Institute. Called “Moving Forward Together,” it builds on earlier projects she has led. Her new initiative will enable patients from across the across the country to take part. “My goal is to scale up the program, so it can reach many more survivors, including those who live in rural areas and survivors who don’t like to go to gyms or take part in structured classes.” A recently published booklet features moving testimonials from participants on the
program benefits. It is a powerful demonstration of how Pinto is making a lasting difference in the lives of patients. “Many people who have read it tell me how much they have appreciated it,” she says.
Bernardine M. Pinto, Ph.D.
Family: Daughter of Louisa Pinto and the late Harry Pinto and sister of Geraldine and Alex
Education: Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology (Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI)
Occupation: Professor and Associate Dean for Research, College of Nursing
Co-Director, Cancer Survivorship Center, College of Nursing, UofSC
Achievements: Research promoting physical activity among middle-aged and older adults with chronic disease with an emphasis on its importance in cancer recovery
Community Service: South Carolina Cancer Alliance
“Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking, one makes the road, and upon glancing behind, one sees the path that never will be trod again. Wanderer, there is no road—Only wakes upon the sea.” - Spanish poet Antonio Machado
“It’s not a disgrace not to reach for the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is sin.” - Dr. Benjamin Mays, South Carolina native, minister, civil rights leader, and president, Morehouse College, Atlanta