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LIVESTRONG at the YMCA; Restoring strength, self-esteem and confidence, program helps cancer survivors get ‘back into life again’

Eric Hylden / Forum News Service Lloyd Olson works on equipment designed especially for people in wheelchairs called “Freedom Trainer” — it adjusts to the height of the person in the wheelchair. Mike Bonewell is helping Olson work on strength in his arms.

GRAND FORKS — After her bout with bladder cancer two years ago, Carilynn Maw, 76, of Grand Forks, said she could do everything she’d done before, “but I was tired.”

Looking for an exercise class last fall, she said, “I wondered, ‘Gee, am I going to keep up?’ “

Then, she spotted an ad for a LIVESTRONG class that was starting in October at the local Altru Family YMCA and decided to sign up.

“This is perfect,” Maw said. “You work your way into it; you’re not pressured. There are people to help you.”

Since she started the program, “a lot of things are easier for me; I have more energy,” she said. “I’m learning things I haven’t done before, things I never really thought I could do. …

“I love it, and I’ll continue to do it.”

Offered nationally through the YMCA, the free 12-week program focuses on flexibility, balance, strength, endurance and well-being for people affected by cancer and their families.

Everyone in her 12-member LIVESTRONG group has had cancer, Maw said, but each “is at a different stage.”

Participants work out using Nautilus equipment, resistance bands, core and balance exercise equipment, and free weights, said Patti McEnroe, LIVESTRONG project manager at the Y.

While they are enrolled in LIVESTRONG, participants use the YMCA at no charge.

McEnroe invites guest speakers to talk about topics such as nutrition or how to deal with the swelling that can occur when lymph nodes are removed as part of cancer treatment.

The program is offered in partnership with the Altru Cancer Center and Altru Outreach Therapy.

Debbie Thompson, CEO of the Altru Family YMCA, said, “For me personally, I’m a cancer survivor, so it has deep meaning for me to be able to offer something like that here.”

Individualized approach

Although they exercise in a group setting, participants receive individualized advice from trainers to help them meet specific goals, McEnroe said. “We try to find the best option for each person.”

Participants are free to exercise at their own pace.

“We’re not asking anyone to do anything they’re not ready for,” she said. But “people want to do what they can do.”

Benefits are wide-ranging, “everything from sleeping better, having more energy and feeling like they’re back into life again,” she said.

“Our participants really, really need this. They’re interested in what we’re going to do next. They’re laughing and joking.

“They don’t get a lot of laughing in their day.”

Participants are carefully assessed at the program’s beginning and end as a way to document their progress.

At the first session, participants were encouraged to set goals they wanted to accomplish by the end of the class.

“One of my goals is to take part in the Fargo Marathon — the walking part, not running — next spring,” Maw said. “Each of us has reached our goal, or at least come close to it.”

Mutual support

In the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis, LIVESTRONG participants are getting stronger physically and increasing their energy level, they say, but just as valuable is mutual support and friendship.

“We’ve built a friendship,” Maw said. “You make friends right away.”

Participants have been diagnosed with various cancers including prostate, pancreatic, breast and lung.

As a group, they share useful information and support each other through difficult times, McEnroe said. “They can identify with each other. They understand what each other is going through.”

The program provides “opportunities to interact with each other as much as possible,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe, by the end, the difference we see in people — their attitudes, they feel better about life in general.”

“I’m a pretty upbeat person,” Maw said, “but some days, (cancer) does bring you down. It’s good to be around other people who can give you support.

“I’m firm believer that you have to be around other people, you have to have a positive attitude. We have adversities in life, and you have to work through it.”

‘Emotional basket case’

Cancer survivor Kristine Ryan, 33, of Grand Forks, said, “It’s pretty amazing how much it affects you emotionally.”

Four years ago, she underwent emergency brain surgery to remove a rare tumor “that would have killed me that day, they told me,” had she not been operated on, she said.

Her daughter, Maureen, had just turned 3 at the time, she said. “I was a single mom. It was very scary.”

Chronic pain, resulting from post-surgical cancer treatment, left her feeling “like crud” and forced her to cancel outings with Maureen, like going to a park.

“It got to the point where I had to stop promising her things,” she said. “I did things with her, but I didn’t do the active things that kids love so much.

“When I saw the disappointment in her face, I knew I had to do something.”

Ryan’s first day in LIVESTRONG was “the pits,” she said. “I was an emotional basket case; I was so fatigued and feeling so icky. All hope was gone.

“Everyone opened up to me; it was so reassuring.”

The program “has been absolutely wonderful. We have so much fun; everybody laughs. I feel I’ve gained a new family. Everyone is so quick to offer help, a hug, a shoulder to cry on.”

After three months in LIVESTRONG, “I feel like the old Kristine is coming back. I feel alive again,” she said. “The more I move, the better I feel.”

“It’s fun to be goofy with my daughter again.”

YMCA staff members notice changes, too.

“When they first came in they were hesitant, shy and unsure of what was going to happen,” said Jacki Berglund, LIVESTRONG coach and cycle instructor. “Now, they are confident. It’s exciting to see that confidence level.”

The program “ties your hearts together here,” she told a couple of participants at a recent session. “That’s one of my favorite things.”

McEnroe, who developed the program for the Y, said, “I just knew how important it was going to be, and it’s better than I thought it would be. It’s been the best program I’ve been involved with in my (30-year) health and fitness career.”

“Alumni” of the program are invited to continue exercising at the Y and to support members of the next LIVESTRONG class, which starts in January.

Alumni will receive a free Y pass for that month, McEnroe said. “We’ll encourage them to try other exercise classes, too.”

Lloyd Olson, 87, of Grand Forks, will be among them, said his wife, Shirley. “Otherwise, he’ll go down again.”

Lloyd didn’t walk a couple of months ago, she said. “He’d get up, and I’d have to help him.” Now “Oh, my gosh, he’s walking fast; he’s almost running. It’s amazing. I’m going to tie a rope around him.”

Her husband’s mind is getting better, too, she said. “He concentrates, and that’s good.

“This has been a miracle place.”