Pelotonia Fellow uses tango to improve cancer patients' balance and quality of life

Marie “Mimi” Lamantia came to Ohio State with a clear vision of her future.

“I wanted to study dance, but I also knew I wanted to pursue a career in medicine,” she said, adding that she was intrigued by “the power of combining the arts and medicine and the opportunity for dynamic interventions to help people.”

With the help of a Pelotonia Fellowship, Lamantia, who is majoring in dance and pre-medicine, has been able to combine her two passions. She is using dance to create a dynamic intervention program for cancer patients suffering from chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN).

Her project utilizes the tango, which is both fun and shows great promise in helping cancer patients combat the symptoms of CIPN, which include balance issues, numbness in the extremities and muscle weakness. This can lead to dangerous falls that result in injuries and broken bones and can set back a patient’s recovery. Many CIPN sufferers use a cane or walker.

“It was very powerful,” Lamantia said of watching her students learn to tango and improve their balance. “By the end, they were floating across the floor.”

Lamantia had been determined to find a research project that combines dance and research to help people with physical, balance and movement issues for a long time.

“I did a lot of digging and found research that used dancing as an intervention,” she said, adding she found studies that utilized the tango to help elderly people with balance issues and patients with Parkinson’s Disease.

What Lamantia couldn’t find was research about how the tango – or other forms of dance – could help cancer patients with CIPN. So, with the help and encouragement of her advisor, Lise Worthen-Chaudhari, PhD, she created her own research project, applied for and received a Pelotonia Fellowship, and recruited patients from The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.

Chaudhari is a research assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and associate director of the Motion Analysis and Recovery laboratory within Dodd Hall at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Lamantia’s tango project included three, 10-week sessions in which her dancers tangoed twice a week in order to learn this intricate and beautiful dance that was developed in Argentina.

An early class during each session was “data collection day” to measure a person’s balance, strength and agility, Lamantia said.

One way to measure this is with a balance board.

“We had people stand on a balance board, with their eyes closed, and we measured the amount of their sway,” Lamantia said.

The average amount of sway is about 4 millimeters. The average for Lamantia’s class was 9 millimeters, which places them the “high-risk” category for falling, she said.

Measurements were taken again at the end of the 10-week session, and their sway decreased by 56 percent, Lamantia said.

“That’s really exciting, because it takes them out of the high-risk category for falling and shows that the Argentine tango can be a valid intervention,” Lamantia said.

Lamantia plans to take a gap year after she graduates in the spring, and then attend medical school. Ohio State at the top of her list.

During her gap year, Lamantia hopes to continue her tango-related research.

“Hopefully we can use this work as pilot data to get more funding and do a larger trial,” she said.