Julia Newman remembers sitting in her doctor’s office in 2013 and hearing that she was cancer free. She had just undergone four months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
“The doctor said, ‘You’re well,’ and I thought, ‘I don’t feel well.’ It was like, after all that comes with cancer, now what do I do?” the 50-year-old says. “I wanted to be getting back to feeling better.”
Now, Newman says, she’s doing great, after completing 12 weeks of classes in the Livestrong program at Jorgensen Family YMCA.
The program eases cancer patients back into health through individually tailored exercise, nutrition, education and emotional support.
“The most important part of the program to me was the emotional aspect,” says Newman. “This group was good because they were all like me. I think we really built lasting friendships. I think we all felt really vulnerable in the beginning, but we all bonded together.”
Wendy Spitznagel, director of health initiatives for the YMCA of Greater Fort Wayne, says Livestrong, which is free for cancer patients and family caregivers, accepts people in any stage of treatment or survivorship who obtain their doctor’s clearance.
The endeavor started locally in February with a pilot class of six at Jorgensen and is now in progress at both Jorgensen and the Parkview YMCA. Hopes are to expand it to other area YMCAs, Spitznagel says.
Livestrong at the YMCA is a program supported by the Austin, Texas-based Livestrong Foundation started by cyclist and testicular cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, who is no longer affiliated.
The program is at 300 locations throughout the United States and has worked with more than 25,000 clients, foundation spokesman Andrew Tanker says.
Local YMCA staff members received training from Livestrong’s national association on how to deal with patients’ special needs, says Spitznagel, 50, herself a three-time cancer survivor.
“Each patient goes through an intake process to help us understand their type of cancer and where they’re at,” she says. “It’s very individualized.”
Danielle Parr, program coordinator at Jorgensen, says instructors so far have been able to work with someone with a medical port for chemo, arm swelling from lymphedema after lymph node removal for breast cancer and the breathing limitations of a Stage 4 lung cancer patient whose disease is in remission.
That patient, April Langschied, 61, of Fort Wayne, says she had no energy and residual nerve and blood pressure problems from her treatment when she started the program.
“Because I was not as physically strong as I was before chemo, I had to learn to pace myself and give myself a break. It was a very hard thing for me to learn that I need to take baby steps,” she says.
But instructors “were very good” and among her physical improvements, she says, was going from being able to press 160 pounds on a leg press machine to 210 pounds. She also rediscovered a love for swimming and found out she liked yoga.
“I’m still going to the Y once a week for yoga classes,” she says.
“I think one of the improvements for me was just going out again,” Langschied adds. “I was always very social and could laugh and joke around, and I found that person again. I had lost that going through that (cancer) experience.”
Spitznagel says classes last two hours twice a week. Sixty to 90 minutes are devoted to a rotation of various kinds of exercise, whether participants work out on machines or free weights, do Zumba or Pilates, walk on a treadmill or trail or engage in some kind of activity in the pool.
Because the classes have been composed of 6 to 12 people, participants often can work one-on-one with an instructor for at least part of the class, she says. The rest of the time is devoted to guest speakers and discussion.
“We really can learn a lot from each other,” says Newman, who points to new knowledge about nutrition that has her juicing and eating more vegetables. She, too, has continued her membership at the YMCA and continues to work out.
Newman says she didn’t realize how intensive recovery would be after her cancer surgeries. She says she had a hip-to-hip scar across her abdomen from a relatively common procedure called trans-flap reconstruction. It uses the patient’s own body tissue to form new breasts.
“You feel you have all these limitations after treatment. You have scars, you’re sore, your joints hurt and you don’t have a good range of motion,” she says.
“You want to get back into doing things, and you don’t know how. But the instructors … took all of that into account.”
Last week, Jorgensen Livestrong instructor Jessica Bender was helping Linda Moran of Fort Wayne for the first time get on a leg extension machine designed to strengthen the quadriceps.
Setting the machine at 50 pounds, which Moran, 72, was to lift from her ankles, Bender told the breast cancer patient to try for 2 or 3 sets at 10 to 12 reps each.
Moran, in a bright lavender T-shirt and black tights, breezes through the first set. “Whooo,” she says at the ninth rep on the second set. “Now I’m feeling it.”
Nonetheless, Moran, about a month after ending treatment that included a lumpectomy, says she likes the program “real well.” She also attends Silver Sneakers sessions at the YMCA, but Livestrong “has gotten me doing things I never would have tried,” she says.
Spitznagel says the program offers a free membership to a patient’s family member or caregiver during the 12 weeks of the program; after that, patients and caregivers must buy a membership.
But she hopes fundraising will enable discounted or free memberships.
The staff also is looking into starting an alumni or mentoring group for Livestrong “graduates,” who will soon number 28, Spitznagel says. One mark that the program is succeeding is that Parkview Health’s cancer center has started referring patients, she says.
Already, the program has worked with men and women from their 20s to their 70s, Parr says.
“Almost all of them say they want to regain their strength. A lot of them say they want to get their stamina back,” she says.
“They don’t want to be a cancer patient for the rest of their life.”