In the throes of sometimes devastating treatments, cancer patients are turning to fitness classes to rejuvenate their bodies, fend off recurrences.
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.