Sheryl Simoni had been a runner until her knees gave out — she used to walk around the neighborhood with friends. Darlene Dukes used to work out regularly until fatigue overcame her. Linda Finlay never bothered to put on sneakers, "I don't like to exercise."
Breast cancer changed everything for these women, and for dozens of others who have been a part of Livestrong at the YMCA, a free 12 -week exercise, wellness and nutrition program for anyone who has had cancer.
During and after their cancer treatment, these women like most found themselves exhausted — too tired from chemotherapy or radiation to fully resume their former lives. Just getting through the day was a challenge. It wasn't that their spirits weren't high, Simoni, for example, carried a positive attitude that made others smile. She wore rabbit ears to the chemo room, or antennas with stars. Breast cancer hadn't come as a shock to her — her mother and two aunts had had it, so she recognized that it ran in the family, and she was vigilant with checkups. Still, when she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, it wasn't the news she wanted to hear. Thirteen lymph nodes were removed, and she had chemotherapy and radiation. She took it in stride. "I wanted to be normal. I'm still me."
But when she learned about the national Livestrong program, she signed up. "I wanted to be stronger, I wanted to eat better and lose weight," she said. "I wanted to have a connection with other survivors."
Simoni got all this at the Wheeler Regional Family YMCA in Plainville, one of four YMCAs in the Hartford area that offer the Livestrong program.
The program is free and open to anyone who has had any type of cancer. Small classes are offered twice a week, taught by teachers who have been trained to work with cancer survivors under a grant from the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
Participants learn how to use the equipment, work individually on building strength, flexibility, balance and endurance. There are mini-classes in aqua aerobics, Zumba and Pilates. There are talks on nutrition, and opportunities for individual consultations. There are also opportunities for socializing over a game of cards or arts and crafts projects, and a stress-reducing element that includes Tai Chi and yoga. A Y membership is not required to start, but participants are given a free membership while they are in the program. Locall, Livestrong is also offered at YMCAs in Ellington, Granby, Wallingford, Southington and Cheshire.
Improving Body And Spirit
The emotional upheaval of divorce made Dukes forget her mammogram one year. When she finally got to her appointment the following year, her doctor saw an abnormality and sent her for a biopsy, which showed stage 1 cancer. Dukes opted for a double mastectomy, but the fatigue and weight gain she experienced after chemo and radiation made her depressed — she went up two dress sizes, had no energy and was spending her days in bed.
After a colleague at the Department of Children and Families where Dukes is a supervisor sent around an email praising Livestrong, Dukes decided to give it a try. She went to classes at the Hartford Downtown YMCA twice a week, and found that her body and her attitude changed.
"I like the way I look. I'm toned. I'm two or three sizes smaller," she said. In a wellness class, when everyone discussed where they wanted to be, Dukes chose a picture card with a woman on a bike: "She's peaceful, calm, and ready to conquer the world." Dukes says she is planning a shopping trip to buy lacy lingerie once she is done with reconstruction surgery. And she now feels ready for a new relationship. The biggest change is that she is now addicted to exercise. She goes to boot camp training every morning before work and is a member of two gyms. As an African-American woman, she knows that deaths from breast cancer are somewhat higher for black women than they are for white women. She is thankful her disease was diagnosed in time. "I'm my new me," she said. "I may not have my breasts, but I have determination."
Finlay made the decision to have a double mastectomy after she learned that she had a one centimeter lump in her right breast. "I didn't want to be dealing with it," she said. After the operation, she learned that a biopsy had shown a tiny amount of cancer in the left breast, which vindicated her decision to choose the more invasive operation.
She decided to become more mindful about her life. She eliminated chemicals from her food, her shampoo and her makeup. She resumed work at the Wheeler Clinic, where she is the executive assistant to the president. Exercise was still not on her agenda, but one day, she heard about the Livestrong program on a morning television show, and she realized that the Y was close to her job. She signed up.
As the classes progressed, Finlay realized that she was enjoying them. She learned to work the machines and the treadmill. To her surprise, she enjoyed talking with other people who had received a cancer diagnosis. Some of the people she met were still in treatment, while others had been diagnosed and treated years ago. "We don't seem to dwell on it," she said. "We're all here for the same purpose."
"My goal is getting into better shape," she said, and she's altered her diet to include more fruits and vegetables. "Everyone is so positive. We're all cancer survivors." She's no longer reluctant to put on her gym clothes. "This has really given me a motivation."
There's more than anecdotal evidence that exercise helps healing — and it may even play a role in preventing cancer, said Dr. Anees Chagpar, the director of the Breast Center at Smilow Cancer Center of Yale-New Haven Hospital.
"Research is coming out showing how important exercise is not only in recovering from cancer but in preventing it," said Chagpar. No longer are patients told to rest or not to exert themselves following surgery or treatment. "The days of lying in bed are over," she said. "Physical fitness is actually a great way to speed up recovery."
Exercise can reduce the side effects of treatment and prevent the formation of blood clots and improve mental status. Lifting weights reduces lymphedema — swelling that can be caused by the removal of lymph nodes during cancer treatment.
A clinical trial now underway at Smilow and the Yale School of Public Health is measuring the impact of exercise and of mindfulness on the cell structure of women with breast cancer to find out whether they can actually prevent cancer cells from growing. "We are seeing whether there is an impact, so we can gain a greater insight into the mind-body connection," she said.
"The first hurdle is to let people know it's OK to exercise," Chagpar said. "If you are physically active, you should do that and not let cancer stop you."
Cory Lowrey was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. She'd just started to be physically active again when a fall made walking difficult. She's participated in the Livestrong program in Plainville twice, and said she's benefitted from the nutrition advice, the camaraderie, and the increase in strength. "I've changed my dietary habits, I'm toned…[though] I still have pain where the lymph nodes were.''