Exercise had become a way of life for this metastatic breast cancer patient, but the Livestrong program at the YMCA provided the chance to add more variety into her routine and, more importantly, offered the chance to see the strength and hope in fellow survivors.
Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
Living with cancer requires many things, although I would say that the most important aspect is listening to what others suggest, incorporating it if it makes sense, and then doing what works best for you. While some in my life urged extra sleep and encouraged me to limit activities – and that was an absolute necessity while receiving the harshest of my prescribed chemotherapy drugs – I knew from the start of treatment in January 2015 that lying down was not the way to go for me.
Just before I was diagnosed, I'd read an article about how preliminary research (in mice, not humans) indicated that exercise during chemotherapy seemed to strengthen the effectiveness of those drugs. Once I knew for certain that what I was dealing with was cancer, that brief report in the newspaper was enough for me to step up my activity on the treadmill.
I know I was lucky. Yes, I was tired. Yes, I was depressed and scared. But I was also lucky that I could find the energy to walk for a couple of miles five or six days a week. Now, two years later, with treatment being a way of life, I've made a point of making exercise a way of life as well.
Recently I finished a program offered at my local YMCA for cancer survivors. While I am not technically a "survivor", the Y welcomed me into the program. They provide it in conjunction with Livestrong and it is offered at various YMCAs around the country, although not at all.
The program is free and runs for three months. It starts with a series of tests – balance, coordination, strength – and one-and-a-half-hour sessions twice a week. The participants, all of us cancer survivors or patients and our friends/family members for support, learned and did exercises to help in each of those areas. Our use of weight machines was limited; the instructor taught us how to strengthen ourselves and improve coordination and balance at home using easily found items like resistance bands and light dumbbells (the heaviest we used was five pounds).
Even as someone who'd kept active during treatment and before it, I was urged to challenge myself. While feeling strength increase in my arms and legs and suffering through the effects of sit-ups was enough to keep me coming back every week, the most amazing aspect of the program was not the exercise. Instead, it was the other members of the class, each of them showing by example that lying down was just not an option. My class happened to be all women; I was the youngest, at 51, and the oldest was about two or so decades older. I watched as one woman made an effort to make exercise a priority for the first time in her life and was awed by her physical changes over those three months. Another woman, much older than me, showed her strength by never giving up. When the instructor pushed me to do more, she was right there beside me, encouraging me and the rest of the class with her determination.
These moments in my life with cancer are life-changing. They highlight the idea that the will to live and to do it with strength and hope extend to so many of us who just need opportunity and encouragement. If you are a patient looking for a way to ease back into exercise or increase exercise choices, looking for Livestrong programs in your area would be a good start for this new year.