Her face flushed, Rosemary Lamont sat on the gym floor one recent afternoon, listening to her trainer's impassioned commands.
"Sit up tall and lift that leg," the trainer coached, counting down the remaining seconds. "Five, four, three, two, one. Beautiful!"
Lamont smiled, exhaling loudly.
The 69-year-old woman is among legions of cancer patients adopting a new recovery strategy: They're abandoning their beds and hitting the gym. A growing body of evidence supports the idea that sweating is better than resting after cancer. The workouts both restore energy drained from cancer treatments and, in some cases, help prevent the disease's return.
There are an estimated 13.7 million cancer survivors nationwide and 266,510 in Minnesota, according to the American Cancer Society. Lamont's exercise class, new this spring at the Eden Prairie Community Center, is the latest response to a growing demand for cancer fitness programs.
As the benefits become more widely known, more of the fitness programs are popping up, such as the Livestrong Foundation's partnership with YMCAs across the country and local programs at the YWCA and yoga centers.
"The cancer journey can be very disempowering because your body can betray you, and there's lots of things you just don't have control over," said Cathy Skinner, who is among a rare breed of trainers specially certified by the American College of Sports Medicine to work with cancer survivors. "But exercise, state of mind, nutrition — those things you can control."
'As good as any drug'
Lamont, of Eden Prairie, was battling a second bout of breast cancer when she underwent chemotherapy earlier this year. It left her feeling exhausted.
But she didn't take it lying down. She started working out, twice a week.
It's paying off. Driving a metal pin into a stack of weights during a recent workout, Lamont said: "My arms and legs are much stronger. It's just amazing how quickly it's come."
In personal trainer Kara Jeter's class, Lamont and a small group of women do a mix of cardio, strength training and mind-body work. Jeter, while not a cancer survivor herself, said her heightened awareness of the disease motivated her to push for the new class at the Eden Prairie fitness center.
"We said, 'OK, we really need to get our act together because there are so many people affected by cancer,' " said Jeter, who teamed with two other trainers to create the class.
It's something doctors are embracing, too. Dr. Andrea Cheville of the Mayo Clinic said exercise offers significant benefits for cancer patients. She cited in particular a 2005 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association which found that breast cancer patients who walked briskly for three hours a week had an almost 50-percent reduction in their risk of breast cancer recurrence.
"That's honestly as good as any drug we have," she said.
She advises doing a half-hour of moderate exercise five times a week. Cheville also said exercise will reduce a healthy person's risk of developing certain cancers, namely colon and breast cancer.
The American Cancer Society also recommends exercise, but advises patients to consult with their oncologists before starting an exercise program. The organization has a list of precautions on its website.
Kelli Klein, group fitness coordinator at the YWCA of Minneapolis, launched a cancer recovery exercise program exclusively for women in 2010 at the Lake Street YWCA. Called Cancer Recovery and Exercise for Women (CREW), the program follows the same mix of cardio and strength training as other cancer fitness programs.
"The connection there, the magic, if you will, is the same magic that is the result of exercise being beneficial for so many other things — that is, cell regeneration," Klein said. "We think of exercise as impacting our waistline, impacting our muscles and even impacting our bone density. But we really need to think about exercise as having a fully systemic impact on our bodies, affecting our bodies right down to the cellular level. Then we can really begin to grasp the huge importance of exercise in recovery from any injury, any illness, and especially cancer."
Past CREW participants have included those whose cancer is in remission and those who have struggled with several bouts and are still working out.
The disease is "no longer a death sentence," Klein said. "Cancer is something we manage like heart disease or high blood pressure. Exercise is part of the therapies."
Getting another shot
Larry Fountain, 53, a singer from West St. Paul, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2007 and has battled three rounds. He discovered Skinner's cancer recovery exercise program by chance.
Fountain started working out with her, after undergoing chemotherapy. "It made a heck of a difference," he said of the exercise. "She really helped me get my strength and breath back so I could sing again."
He lifts weights and does exercises to strengthen the core muscles in his abdomen. Getting some exercise also worked wonders for his mind.
"I always like to credit that experience with just helping pick me up out of the dumps," Fountain said. "It helped me start feeling like, you know, 'I'm alive again, I've got another shot.' "
Back at the Eden Prairie Community Center, the women in Jeter's class are starting to bond. They've talked about getting together outside of class. "We all are friends now," said Diana Hambrook, 72.
She was in the middle of doing bicep curls with handheld dumbbells when Lamont walked up to chat.
"You graduated to five-pounders?" Lamont asked. "Whoa, you're getting stronger."
Hambrook nodded, rolling up her sleeves to reveal her biceps. "See?" she said proudly.