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LiveStrong at the YMCA helps cancer survivors get fit again

Pam Leblanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Seven cancer survivors balance on green exercise balls at the TownLake YMCA, talking about their treatment and recovery before hitting the weights and cardio machines.

One is approaching the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis. Another says she finally has the energy to take care of her four young children. Several say that a little exercise, done alongside people grappling with the same issues they're dealing with, has helped them ease back into normalcy.

"I'm getting back to daily life," Shelli Rotunda, 51, diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2010, tells the group. "It feels good, and I have the energy to do it."

Despite studies that show exercise can lessen fatigue and pain, reduce side effects of treatment and boost self-esteem, many patients quit exercising when they're diagnosed with cancer. Even after treatment, many can't find the energy or motivation to go to the gym.

But a joint program between the YMCA and LiveStrong, the Austin-based nonprofit organization created by Lance Armstrong to improve quality of life for people living with cancer, is pushing patients to stay active after their diagnosis.

LiveStrong at the YMCA is a free, 12-week health and wellness program for adult cancer patients and survivors. Groups of seven to 10 gather twice weekly for 75 minutes of group exercise, personal training and seminars on topics such as nutrition. They also get a three-month YMCA family membership.

In four years, LiveStrong has established the program in 40 cities around the country. It will expand to another 40 this year.

LiveStrong teamed with YMCA to offer the program because about half the country's population lives within 3 miles of a YMCA. More than 12 million Americans are cancer survivors.

"This really allows us to reach cancer survivors where they are, and help them reclaim some of their life," says Haley Gardiner, senior manager of programs and partnerships at LiveStrong.

Two Austin YMCAs, the TownLake and Northwest Family branches, launched the program in September 2010. The Southwest Family and Hays Communities Family branches now offer it, too. Classes specifically targeting Hispanic cancer survivors, with a bilingual instructor, will be added later this year.

Instructors are trained in post-rehab exercise, needs of cancer survivors and ways to make a group environment more supportive.

Rotunda, the breast cancer survivor, says months of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation had left her exhausted. She signed up for LiveStrong at the YMCA after finishing her treatment in December. She committed to the program, and felt obligated to come even if she didn't always feel up to it.

"This has been tremendous in moving me on to a normal life," Rotunda says. "It should be mandatory for someone finishing treatment. (Without it,) I'd probably still be sitting on a couch right now."

Charlie Eversole, 76, a thyroid cancer survivor, says his group has bonded since forming in mid-January. "They were gloom and doom when we walked in because they didn't feel good," he says of others in the class. "Some of them blossomed."

During a recent session, participants pedaled stationary bicycles, clanged away on weight machines, stretched and did yoga. They also laughed.

Judy Bonner, 64, a breast cancer survivor, says just going up stairs was an effort when she finished her treatment in November. She couldn't even raise her arm above her shoulder. That's now changing.

Bonner likes exercising with others who understand what it's like to have cancer. "We're more patient with each other. If you can't do something, you don't feel like you're failing," she says. "Everybody understands. ... It's like a support group with an exercise benefit."

LiveStrong provides a $3,500 grant to each YMCA branch that it approves for the program, but estimates that it costs about $12,500 a year — or about $300 per participant — to operate, Gardiner says.

The YMCA makes up the difference, raising money for the program through its annual YMCA campaign and grants, says Jim Pacey, vice president of development for YMCA of Austin.

"It fits our mission so well," Pacey says, adding that the YMCA would like to start similar programs for people affected by diabetes and obesity.

Almost 4,000 people around the U.S. have completed the program so far. LiveStrong hopes to serve 2,000 more this year.

For the last 30 minutes of the TownLake YMCA class, the group gathers in a circle to do yoga. They take deep breaths, stretch and move through some basic poses. Finally, with more than an hour of movement behind them, participants sprawl on their yoga mats for a few minutes of total relaxation.

"It's meant getting my health back," Bonner says as the class breaks up. "It's meant everything."

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

LiveStrong at the YMCA is currently offered at four area YMCAs. New sessions start April 4 at TownLake YMCA, 1100 W. Cesar Chavez St., 542-9622; March 7 at Southwest Family YMCA, 6219 Oakclaire Drive, 891-9622; March 21 and 29 at Northwest Family YMCA, 5807 McNeil Drive, 335-9622; and mid- or late-May at Hays Communities Family YMCA, 465 Buda Sportsplex Drive, 523-0099. Register online at www.AustinYMCA.org or drop by one of the participating locations.