Livestrong Program Helps Cancer Patients Heal, Body and Spirit

A YMCA program in Rochester gives people a chance to regain their health after cancer, and offers Mayo's Physical Therapy student volunteers an opportunity to hone their skills while helping others.

Michelle Black recently celebrated some small victories. "This week I could walk our dogs, and carry water and soda in from the car," she says. "I could go to Thursdays Downtown." She admits these may not seem like significant accomplishments to most people. But for Michelle — who recently completed cancer treatment — they were major milestones. "These are things I haven't been able to do for the last two or three years," she says. "It's been fun to see that come back."

Michelle credits her comeback to Livestrong at the YMCA, a 12-week small-group fitness program that helps people who have had cancer regain their health. "Many people who have been diagnosed with cancer are living longer due to earlier detection and better treatment options," Heather Stonelake-French, a clinical nurse specialist at Mayo Clinic, tells us. That means more people are living with the sometimes debilitating side effects of treatment and the disease itself. This "can have a significant impact on their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being," says Stonelake-French, who worked with YMCA staff to bring the Livestrong program to Rochester. "While the program promotes physical activity, the emotional and psychological benefits participants describe are equally significant."

Specially trained YMCA staff lead the program, which is tailored to the goals and abilities of each participant. Volunteers, including students from the Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences Physical Therapy program, work one-on-one with participants, monitoring their workouts and providing encouragement. The program also includes education on topics such as nutrition and stress reduction, and time for participants to talk with each other about their experiences.

"Livestrong has been fantastic for our cancer survivors," Mayo Clinic oncologist Kathryn Ruddy, M.D., tells us. "Our Medical Oncology, Radiation Oncology and Hematology divisions have all provided financial support to this program since it launched because we recognize the huge value for our patients. I have heard from many that both the exercise and the social component of the program have helped reduce their depression, fatigue and weakness."

Pennie Eisenbeis has seen those benefits firsthand. "The changes we see in people at the end of 12 weeks are amazing," Eisenbeis, YMCA chronic disease prevention coordinator, tells us. Assessments at the beginning and end of the program show major gains in participants' range of motion, strength and endurance. "It's phenomenal to see," she says. "One gentleman came in using a walker, and when he left, he was signed up for his first 5K." Many participants also discover a new support system. "People gain friendships that last after the program ends," Eisenbeis says. "They realize, 'I'm not alone.'"

That realization was one of program's gifts, according to Michelle. "While we all have our individual stories, backgrounds and goals, there is an inherent community who understands the struggles and triumphs we face," she wrote in a program evaluation. "There is no judgement, only support. Livestrong is a safe place to try new things, to build confidence again, to laugh, to cry, to embrace vulnerability and rediscover your moxie. I sing its highest praises."

Livestrong is free to participants and open to cancer survivors 18 or older. The next sessions begin in September and October. You can learn more and find registration information here. Then register your comments below before using the social media tools to share this story with others.