When Christina Howard, 33, stepped on a treadmill for the first time after finishing an intense round of chemotherapy, she was dismayed.
She set the treadmill to one of the lowest settings, but walking quickly left her winded.
“My heart was pounding, and I could only do a couple of minutes,” she said. “I was so discouraged, thinking I’m never going to have energy again.”
Before her diagnosis with ovarian cancer when she was 29, she’d worked out regularly. But the treatment needed to send her cancer into remission left her hospitalized for long periods of time and sapped her strength.
“After you go through an experience like that, sometimes there can be a lot of depression,” she said. “You’re body is changed. You can have lifelong impacts.”
The YMCA of Cedar Rapids is trying to help cancer patients and cancer survivors like Howard get back on their physical feet through the LIVESTRONG program.
The national YMCA organization and the LIVESTRONG Foundation created the program, which matches trained instructors with cancer patients and cancer survivors for 12 weeks of classes.
Kara Meiborg is the LIVESTRONG program manager at the YMCA of the Cedar Rapids Metropolitan Area, which launched the program in Nov. 2012 after applying for a grant to train instructors.
Meiborg said research shows people who exercise while going through cancer treatment have fewer side effects and have more energy. She said there is also a smaller chance of the cancer recurring.
“A lot of people following treatment have no energy. Even to walk up stairs is a challenge,” she said. “Their muscles can atrophy. They can lose their sense of balance. We want to build muscle mass and increase balance.”
Program instructor Lynnette Hodson said the program is tweaked for people at all fitness levels. She said they’ve had participants in their 80s and participants who are on oxygen.
“We’re showing them they’re stronger than they think they are, that they can do anything they put their mind to,” she said.
She said one of the program’s goals is to help participants adjust to their “new normal.”
“Their entire lives have changed,” she said. “But we want to get them to where they’re able to go do things like walking their dog, or getting down on the floor and playing with their grandkids.”
Meiborg said the program also aims to help with self esteem and emotional well-being. Class participants meet and work out together, providing mutual motivation and support.
Howard said that sense of community was exactly what she needed.
“The cancer really took me into isolation,” she said. “None of my old friends walked through my story. It just felt good to share experiences with people who had also had huge physical struggles.”
She said the other patients kept her coming back to class.
“For me it really was a ray of hope that there is community, and I can get back on track as far as fitness,” she said. “It was motivating to do it together.”